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Saturday, January 01, 2011

RICHARD FREEMAN: Cold Snap

Beautifully illuminated Durham Cathedral rose out of the darkness like some fairytale citadel above a sea of mist. Below the colourful, if somewhat garish, Christmas illuminations twinkled and winked in streets and houses. The view from the railway carriage was quite breathtaking to most onlookers but to Russell Arkwright it just formed a knot in his stomach. He stepped down onto the platform clutching his small holdall, his breath forming a series of tiny ghosts that danced away into the sharp, cold night air. It had been a long trip up from London and during every moment of it, Russell had wondered if he was doing the right thing. Sixty-two years it had been since he set eyes on Durham and it still felt like too soon. He shuddered and hugged himself against the cold.

As he began to cross the platform something caught his eye. A discarded newspaper on a bench. It was a copy of the Durham Times, a photograph of a gap toothed urchin grinning out from the front cover. He bent to pick it up.

“ANOTHER CHILD LOST IN THE WEAR” the headline proclaimed. Russell scanned the story with mounting dread. Lines jumped out at him. ‘Alfie Randle, 10, missing, believed drowned in the River Wear at Durham.’ ‘Third child lost in the river this winter.’ ‘Police divers find no trace.’

He realised that he couldn’t stay and turned back, but the train was already pulling out of the station. Now he had no choice, this had been the last train. He looked down at the paper in his hands.

“It’s still happening,” he whispered.

Survivor’s guilt the psychologist had called it, whatever that meant. Why should he feel guilty about surviving? Lucky maybe, but not guilty. What had happened on Christmas morning 1948 had stayed with him all his life. Bad dreams that seemed to get worse with age. They had cost him his marriage and his health. He held off going to see a psychiatrist until last year. Perhaps it was his age. Most folk of Russell’s generation associated psychiatrists with the stigma of madness. In the 1940s and 50s the ‘mad’ were locked away in country institutions and quietly forgotten about. But he was 72 now and long retired. He felt he had little to worry about.

The doctor on Harley Street had suggested hypnotherapy, a regression to the events of that morning so long ago. Facing and conquering the fear that had tormented him for most of his life. The fear he had blotted from his memory. He had been told that it was nothing unusual. Thousands of people had experienced traumatic events that the conscious mind had blotted out. The suppressed memories resurfaced as bad dreams. It was a commonplace complaint and easily treatable. Nothing to be worried about, nothing at all.

He had recalled some of the events unaided. Meeting with his friends on that crisp, bright morning, they had all asked for the same thing - ice skates. The Wear froze deep in those days. Not like today when you hardly got a winter. Back in the 1940s he recalled snow drifts six feet deep. The thaw didn’t start till the end of March. Durham was a wonderland for kids then with hills to sledge down, snowmen to build, snowball fights to have. Best of all was the Wear - it froze so well that men rode horses and carts along it. One year they even built a big bonfire on it.

But the thought of whizzing over the frozen water was so exciting. He’d seen ice skaters at the pictures and a few of the better off folk in Durham actually had skates. Russell had looked on in envy at them as they sped by. Now he had a pair of skates of his own.

His mates met him by the river; Larry, Brian, Tim, Cyril, each proudly showing of a new pair of ice skates. There was a deep wooded gully ideal for practising. They had wasted no time in putting them on and unsteadily tottering out onto the frozen river. It was hard at first. Even standing was difficult. All five of them toppled down repeatedly bruising knees and elbows. Thankfully it was early on and no one was about to see them make fools of themselves. Like riding a bike it came in time. The boys helped each other and soon they were sailing across the ice grinning and rosy cheeked.

Russell recalled a noise that he thought was a gunshot. He imagined someone out shooting pheasants or woodcock. Then the noise came again followed by an awful rending sound like nails on a blackboard magnified a thousand times. Looking back he saw huge cracks forming in the ice. How could ice so thick, as strong as steel crack like that? The surface of the Wear lurched crazily tipping him to one side. All around him his mates were tumbling and sliding as the ice was torn apart. A thick fog was billowing in. Moments before the air was crystal clear. The fog smelt strange. It was acrid and burnt his nose and throat as he breathed it in. It made him feel sick and dizzy.

He heard Cyril screaming and a splashing sound. Trying to peer through the thick fog he thought he saw Larry tumble into the freezing water. Russell staggered to his feet and made for the bank in a series of crazy floundering hops. The skates, so prized earlier were a hindrance and he frantically fumbled with the laces to get them off then leapt from chunk to chunk of sundered ice. Behind him there was more splashing and a screaming that was cut short. He couldn’t tell if it was Tim or Brian calling out. All he recalled was somehow scrambling up the bank and collapsing. A couple walking their dogs had found him. He woke up in hospital suffering from hypothermia.

The family had moved away from Durham after that. His Dad was lucky, he had an elder brother who worked on the parks department in Crawly and he got him a job. Ruth, his sister was born five years later.

Moving down south had not meant Russell could escape the memories of that morning. The dreams started not long after. They were always the same, a re-playing of that fateful day but in greater clarity. He saw the faces of his friends pleading for help as they went under. He tried to grasp their hands with frozen fingers as they vanished into the dark, icy water. He could not save a single one, despite their pleas, despite how hard he pulled at the floundering arms.

He was surprised at how young the hypnotherapist was. He had expected some shock haired, bow tied stereotype but Dr Mullard was young enough to be his son, no more than 35. He’d seen a hypnotist at Butlins Holiday camp as a boy. The man had made audience members do and say ridiculous things. He was still nervous.
But there were no swinging fob watches or commanding stares. He and Dr Mullard had just talked for a while pleasantries at first and then the specifics of his problem. Lying back on the couch he found it easier to relax than he had for a while though. Dr Mullard’s voice seemed to put him at ease as he tried to mentally travel back to that day so long ago. It was easier than he had thought, letting down his defences, breeching his cerebral barricade. Perhaps it wasn’t the soft, reassuring voice of Dr Mullard; perhaps he had just grown tired of fighting it.

Soon he was back there, on the ice the wind in his hair and face as he sped faster and faster across the gleaming surface. Around him his friends spun and twirled, abandoning themselves to the joy of the moment. It was strange to be out on the Wear after fearing water for so long. He had avoided lakes and rivers after what had happened. Even crossing a river on a train or in a car or bus had him shudder. The sea had horrified him and he had never been abroad. Holidays were spent in the countryside not at the seaside. But now he was elated and excited once more, panting with boyish exertion as the white landscape blurred.

Then the revelry was split by that noise, that booming retort of the ice sheet shattering. The world pitched crazily as he fell. Looking back he saw his friends tumbling in all directions. He also saw something he hadn’t recalled consciously before. He saw the fog but it wasn’t rolling in like fog was supposed to. It seemed to be rising up directly from the split in the ice, rising up from the river itself. Was it gas from the decaying matter on the river bed? It seemed to be under pressure as it came whooshing and hissing up in a great plume almost like films he had seen of geezers. It smelt odd, sickly sweet and stung his eyes. Soon it was rolling across the ice obscuring his view. The screams began.

In his mid Russell re-lived scrambling across the splitting ice. Cyril was already in the water and reaching out for help. Following the cries Russell found him and grabbed his hands. Maybe if he could save just one of his friends this time around the dreams would end. He began to haul the sodden, shivering boy out of the water. He was wet and heavy. The slippery surface made it all the more difficult but he heaved again and Cyril began to rise from the water. Then he was jerked violently back, torn from Russell’s grip by something of phenomenal strength pulling against him. Was it the undercurrent of the Wear? In a second Cyril was wrenched underwater and vanished.
Russell looked round desperately for the others. He saw Tim thrashing weakly twenty feet away and stumbled over to him on the moving ice. Once more he grasped his friend’s arms; once more he was yanked away before he could even scream.

A yell from behind him made him turn in time to see Larry scrambling up onto a raft of ice through the strange, stinging fog. Suddenly it pitched to once side as it had been struck from beneath tossing the blue, trembling boy into the dark waters of the Wear. He did not rise again.

Brian was actually in the river, in one of the widening channels that opened up as the separate pieces of ice drifted away. There was something else in the water with him. He remembered for the first time in sixty-two years. There were lights under the water, two of them. They looked like the headlamps on the old fashioned cars you got back then but they were under the water, near the bottom of the wear. They rose up and the boy seemed to be sucked down into the depths.

The sickening fog was making his head swim. He pulled desperately at the laces on his skates, cursing their length and his proficiency at tying knots. Through the fog he saw the twin light beneath the surface. They seemed to turn his way and approach the chunk of ice on which he was lying. Abandoning his skates, he ran blindly into the fog, leaping from chunk to wobbling chunk of ice. Fear gave him strength and speed. Soon he was shambling through the shallows near the bank. He felt the bow wave of something huge behind him as he clawed at frozen grass and rushes. He glanced back once.

He awoke on the couch in screaming hysteria his mind recoiling and blanking out the last image.
He did not return for a second session.

The dreams got worse after that. Those weird lights, whatever they had been, now seemed to dominate his nightmares. Finally, he had made his mind up to exorcise his daemons by returning to Durham to the River Wear.
Ruth had lived all her adult life here, having married a local man she met on holiday. They were not a close family. Russell had Ruth had exchanged cards at Christmas and birthdays. She occasionally came down to London. Her husband, over a decade her senior, had died that summer. They had no children and he thought she could do with the comfort. He was the only family she had now. He could kill two birds with one stone.
He climbed down the steps, slick with frost, and made his way to the taxi rank.
Ruth was waiting at the door of the little house. They hugged awkwardly.

“Good journey?” She enquired.

“Nine hours on a train is never good.”
“Never mind, there some tea on and something a bit stronger for you when you’ve unpacked.”

The decorations at Ruth’s house were minimal. Russell was thankful for that small mercy. He hated decorations. Loud, crass and tacky. A physical personification of a time of year he loathed. A large photo of Harry stood upon the television. Russell had only met him a few times but he had been a good man and treated his sister well.
Ruth was a good cook and he ate well at supper. Lamb and blackberry pie, an old recipe he had not tasted in years. Mulled wine followed with sticky toffee pudding.

Russell and Ruth exchanged gifts shortly after the old grandfather clock, that was once their father’s, had struck twelve. He had told her that he would be up at the crack of dawn for a walk. He gave her a porcelain Labrador. She gave him a tie and gloves. Brother and sister hardly knew one another.

Strangely he slept very well that night. For once no nightmares. Maybe this was the best course of action. Facing ones fears and exorcising them once and for all. When he awoke it was with a feeling of finality.

He left the house quietly so as not to awaken Ruth. The sun was just crawling over the horizon spreading its ruddy light across the bleak landscape. It was frosty but there was no snow, not like there had been back then. No one had risen yet, no excited children scrambling around the streets. Russell wondered if kids still had snowball fights or built snowmen (on the rare occasions that there was snow). They were probably too busy with their video games, growing fat and pasty in front of a flickering screen.

Soon he was wandering through the naked trees, the frozen grass crunching underfoot. Then the Wear came into view, silvery white and frozen. The ice didn’t look as thick or as strong as it had when he was a boy. He felt himself shaking as the slowly approached the bank.

“Come on, you’ve got this far. No point in turning back now,” he told himself

The silence was deafening. Russell though he could have been in the wilds of eastern Siberia rather than in the boundaries of a small city. There was no one here, nothing stirred. It was just him and the silver Wear, like the trail of some gargantuan snail.

His throat was dry as stood on the bank and looked at the frozen water. He knew that the ice was not thick enough to support him these days. It was thin enough in places for him to see the dark waters moving silently below it. He recalled the newspaper, the lost boy. He had not been the first.

After the hypnotherapy failed he had done some searching on line. Computers were more or less a mystery to him but the lady in the library had been so helpful. It seemed that every year people vanished in the Wear. Not just children, adults as well. Not just in winter either, all year round. Some were drownings, accidents that happen in all bodies of water. But there seemed to be a significant amount of cases were no body was ever found. The Wear was not like other rivers. There was something wrong with the Wear.

Swallowing and trembling he forced himself to wander along the bank as the sun slowly pulled itself higher in the sky. The silence was broken by rooks calling in the distance. Turning he saw them rise up from the rookery in an untidy black cloud.

As he looked back at the Wear his eyes were drawn to a section where the thinning ice became transparent. The endless cold, ceaseless flow seemed to have a pull. His eyes and brain began to form shapes below, underwater simulacra constructed of shadow, weed and mud. It seemed something huge was moving sluggishly through the river. It looked like the trunk of some ancient oak, thick and gnarled. But no tree could be so long. The shape’s length seemed unending and horridly flexible. Even as he watched it seemed to be turning back on itself. An illusion of moving water and bad memories, nothing more. Yet then he saw the lights. Two shining orbs like car headlights moving under the Wear. The same lights Dr Mullard’s session had drawn out of his memories. They seemed to pause every so often and swing from side to side like twin, underwater search lights.

Horrified and fascinated Russell watched from the bank. The lights seemed to be associated with the long, thick shape he had taken to be a trick of the eye. They seemed to be attached to one end of it. A rivulet of liquid fear oozed slowly down his back as he realised that what he was looking at were eyes.

What in the name of god had eyes that big? Then again he realised it was nothing in the name of god. The body was like some mammoth snake. No snake could possibly be so huge. A coil arched and the fragile ice fell apart in shards. The 'fog' spewed upwards in twin jets and burned his throat as he breathed it in.

The thing heaved itself up, black slime from the Wear’s muddy bed sloughing away to show horny green scales. Only tiny a portion of a body that extended beyond view had breached. The mind recoiled at the thought of the sheer size of whatever was slithering through the waters of the River Wear.

Then, with an awful sucking sound, a massive, wedge shaped head reared up. It was the size of a car, with eyes glowing like some deep-sea fish that never saw the light of day. The jaws swung open showing row after row of murderous teeth. Between them a red, forked tongue as long as a couch flickered tasting the air. The thing’s nostrils shot forth billowing clouds of acrid vapour.

Another lost memory rose. A rhyme chanted by children in his playground so very long ago.

“But the worm got fat an' grewed an' grewed,
An' grewed an aaful size;
He'd greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes.”

The Lambton Worm, the creature about which mothers still told their children - the great reptile that terrorised the area in the 1400s until slain by Sir John Lambton wearing a suit of spiked armour. Russell realised then that the stories were lies. No one and nothing could slay the worm. It was the spirit of the Wear itself made flesh and fang and scale. Genius loci in the form of a serpent dragon, now risen hungry from its sleep.

Fold after fold of its coils humped up from the river as the jaws rose before the transfixed man. The worm's breath wreathed him in a bitter blanket. The great glowing eyes transfixed him like a rabbit before a stoat. For a moment the worm paused. Did he see a look of recognition before the final snap?

1 comment:

Tania Poole said...

I love your stories, Rich. Keep 'em coming....