George Stewart’s 1949 novel, Earth Abides, is singular in both senses – it is the only science fiction the University of California Professor of English ever wrote, and also a remarkably prescient and deeply moving epic. Set in the aftermath of a virus that decimates the global population – the Great Disaster that derails the human project catastrophically (at least in terms of what we think of as ‘civilisation’) – the opening chapters depict an eerily quiet and depopulated land that could easily be one in lockdown. Yet as the protagonist, Isherwood Williams, (or ‘Ish’ as he becomes known) makes his solitary way back from the wilderness where he had been undertaking field research, it soon becomes apparent that a devastating plague has swept the land, leaving fly-ridden corpses in lonely gas stations, mummified ones in the desert, and rendering the former population clusters of cities as no-go zones. And the near mass extinction event of humankind allows for a rewilding of America, in a similar way to how Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies imagined a ‘wild England’ in his post-apocalyptic novel of 1885, After London. Yet, unlike in Jefferies, where the first half of the novel is a detailed natural history survey sans character or plot, in Stewart’s narrative, Ish is our viewpoint character who has agency. We experience this biological apocalypse through his thoughts and senses – an academic, he reflects upon what he beholds stoically. Used to his own company and absorbed by his own preoccupations, he is able to cope with a depeopled California, until finally jarred out of his solipsism by first a dog, and then by chance encounters with the diseased, deranged, or decadent few who have also survived. He embarks upon a bleak road trip to the East Coast, only to be unimpressed by the remnants he encounters. Returning to the West Coast and his former childhood home, he settles down to a quiet life, until … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover. What is refreshing about Stewart’s post-apocalypse is the anthropological approach he takes in charting the vicissitudes of the remaining survivors. He takes the long view of history, and prophesies a circularity to it … the survivors subsist upon what they can scavenge, but eventually the shelves empty or are overrun by the swarms of ants, rats, and feral canines, and the scattered tribes regress into a future primitive state. The novel shows its age in some places – most notably in its problematic descriptions of people of colour, the handicapped, and of women. And yet Stewart nearly redeems himself by lauding the main female (and mixed race) character – who is shown to have greater strength and stamina than the men. She is rather put on a pedestal and is frequently referred to as the ‘mother of nations’ – and so this idealised feminine is just as problematic in its own way. Stewart also is far off the mark in his disavowal of climate studies as being of any relevance to future life on Earth: ‘Climatic change was not a practical problem.’ Yet for a novel written in the late 1940s, we can hardly blame the author for that blindspot, and in many ways Stewart’s sole foray into the speculative is a seminal work of Climate Fiction, and in that sense it is far ahead of the curve. It rightly won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. So, despite its weaknesses of representation, the novel has many strengths – not just the breadth of its vision, but in its non-anthropocentric shifts, and its proto-ecological tone. It foregrounds the importance of environment, and exhorts (of the earth): ‘There is nothing else by which men live’. Stewart emphasises the Earth will survive us, and is indifferent to our plight. He destabilises our imagined position as the pinnacle of creation; he also challenges the vanity of ambition, the empty intellectualism of academe (whenever it ceases to have practical purpose), and the myth of progress. All that matters, he seems to infer, is our immediate community of connections, the family (or ‘Tribe’ in its extended form), our inner resilience, adaptability, and capability. Simple skills of survival become more important than the vainglorious dreams of betterment and posterity. And yet although this heartbreakingly charts the end of the Enlightenment Project and western civilisation’s brief moment in the sun, this is ultimately a humanist and humanitarian novel, and there is deep poetry and compassion here – in the poetic, pseudo-Biblical epigraphs; and in the loving record of marriage and friendship. A haunting vision of a plague-stricken America, there is nevertheless a quiet beauty here that lingers long after the book has been put down.
I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…
In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.
Here’s the blurb:
The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.
From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).
Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.
Here’s the blurb:
Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.
As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.
Here’s the final blurb – I promise!
A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.
Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.
To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.
The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.
And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).
No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!
In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:
I continue my account of my long association with environmental writing…
So moving into the 2010s (what do we call that decade – the Tweenies?), I moved home – from Bath to Stroud (not a great distance physically – 30 miles – but drastically different in terms of ethos and aesthetic). Here, in 2011 I published Soul of the Earth: an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry. It was edited by the late poet Jay Ramsay, although I came up with the title, designed the cover, and co-ordinated its production and launch (at a great group author showcase in Waterstones, Bath). It was one of the titles I am proudest of during my stint as director of Awen Publications (which I founded in 2003, and ran until 2013). We were able to negotiate an endorsement from the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and includes a fantastic cohort of contemporary poets.
In 2013 I handed over Awen to the capable husband-and-wife term of Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, to concentrate upon my PhD at the University of Leicester. While there I collaborated in some interdisciplinary writing commissions, and had some inspiring conversations with colleagues engaged in cutting-edge research into Artificial Intelligence and Space Research – this, alongside my ongoing concerns about the environment, fed into the mix that led to me writing Black Box, a science fiction/CliFi novel that asks ‘What will survive of us?’ On a whim I entered it into a national science fiction novel manuscript competition run by Literature Works (a Plymouth-based literature development agency), ‘One Giant Write’, and it won. I got serious attention from Marcus Gipps, the commissioning editor for Gollancz. After a couple of aborted launches, it has now achieved lift-off thanks to Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – a brilliant podcast with a strong track record of producing excellent CliFi audio dramas. I adapted 3 pilot episodes, which have been produced by the talented sound engineer/wizard, Chris Gregory, and they are being premiered 27th November, 4th December, and 11th December. I wrote a draft of Black Box in a croft on the coast of Wester Ross (see my blog ‘The SciFi Croft’), and in it I stared hard into the abyss of our possible species extinction and chose to saw there a gleam of light – because in my doctoral research into Fantasy I forged an ethical aesthetics of the genre. Tired and disturbed by the cultural dominance of Grimdark, a particularly nihilistic and Neoliberal view of the world, I devised Goldendark, which acknowledges the challenges we face (re: Climate Chaos; geopolitical turmoil; the rise of the Alt-Right), but takes creative responsibility and offers a gleam of hope in what stories we chooses to tell and share. Black Box is my first intentional Goldendark novel and I am glad it is finally seeing the light of day.
Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.
My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.
In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.
And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!
I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…
My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Remember everybody’s favourite rocker, Eddy Redcrow, lead singer and guitarist of good old Gimli boys, The Runestone Cowboys? He was on a vacation in Europe when the Icelandic volcano went up and has been missing ever since. Well, would you know it, he turned up in a snowdrift a couple of days ago – nearly dead with hypothermia, but I’m assured he is back home and thawing out. Some of ma’s broth will do the trick! We send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery, and hope to hear his rock’n’roll again soon.
Chapter 25: Home
A bed. He was lying in a soft bed. With clean-smelling sheets, a thick duvet, a heavy blanket or two thrown on top. That was the first thing he became aware of. His eyes were still shut; he couldn’t bear to open them … yet. His body ached all over and it was only in the snug pockets of sleep that he could find refuge. He burrowed into its hollows, trying to grab the tail of his last dream. Something about soaking in a geothermal pool with Fenja – his poor old bones absorbing the heat, slowly thawing out. Now and then Fenja would kiss him with her ice-cold lips, sending shivers up his spine. This would alternate with the bubbles of heat from the water. And he would swing between the two almost unbearable extremes – freezing and scolding. But then the sulphurous reek of the water was displaced by a waft of freshly brewing coffee. The muted sound of talking on a radio blending with voices in the room. Familiar voices.
He opened his eyes.
Mom! Dad! He’s awake!’ It was the voice of his sister, Siggy. She was holding his hand and weeping.
‘Sizzers…’ he croaked.
Wiping the tears away with the cuff of her thick sweater, she gave him a soft punch. ‘You’re late, you bastard!’
‘Don’t kill him, dear. Though he deserves it.’ His mother, Sitting Cloud, walked slowly into the room. Always a big woman, she seemed even rounder than usual. ‘Come here, you!’ She came up to him and buried his face in the mound of her belly. He breathed in the familiar smell – warm wool, baking. He felt the hot tears rise within him.
‘So you’re not dead then.’ It was the gruff voice of his father, Magnus.
Eddy pulled back and saw his father standing there, arm round his wife. Still, a mountain of a man, glacial eyes staring out from the crag of his face, he nevertheless looked shockingly older, frailer, than the last time Eddy had seen him. It had only been three months, but it looked like they had taken their toll.
Eddy tried to sit up, and winced.
‘Hey! Don’t move, idiot!’ Siggy punched him again.
‘Why, so I can be your punchbag?’ he grinned.
Her frown melted briefly and she folded her arms – her long dark hair was wild and it looked like she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep, but it warmed his heart to see her, to see them all.
‘You’re one lucky son of a bitch, son.’ His father pulled out his pipe and started filling it, despite the glare from his wife. ‘Sheriff Rivet and her deputy found you in a snowdrift. If they hadn’t been riding by at that time, you would have been dead in a couple of hours. They lugged your frozen ass to the med-centre, where they kept you in overnight. We came and got you the next day and you’ve been asleep for the last couple of days. Lazy, as ever.’ He flicked his Zippo and drew the flame into the wodge of tobacco. The familiar reek wafted towards him.
‘Get that pipe out of here! You know better, husband!’
Magnus held up his hands in surrender. ‘We’ll jaw later, son.’ Pipe clenched in teeth, hands thrust in the pockets of his baggy jeans, he sauntered off.
His mother tested his brow. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Like I’ve done ten rounds with a grizzly.’
They all laughed at that, his sister on one side, his mother opposite. He felt held by their love.
‘I can’t believe I’m back!’ he said, wincing as he tried to move.
‘We thought …’ his mother stopped, choked with tears.
‘What happened to you, asshole! Last we heard you were chasing tail at some bikerfest!’ She went to punch him again, but her mother froze her with a stare.
‘Hey, sizzers, I’m the invalid here! You need to work on your bedside manner, sis!’
‘Siggy deserves an explanation, son. We all do.’
His sister gave him a furious glare.
He sighed. Where should he start? ‘It’s a long story…’ was all he could manage for now.
‘Well, we’re not going anywhere,’ said his mother. ‘This freak winter has set in. Gimli’s cut off! Things are bad, real bad.’
‘Where did you come from, bro? How did you get here? They found a bike with … Nazi shit all over it … A fricking bike!’
Eddy coughed violently, body wrenched forward as he gasped for breath, until he flopped back on the pillows. The chill was still inside him. He felt all wrung out.
‘We should let him rest. The story can wait.’
His sister gave him a sly pinch. ‘It’d better be a good one.’
Eddy looked out at the backyard, transformed, in the sharp morning light, into a miniature snowscape – familiar details rendered unfamiliar, grotesque, misshapen. This had been no ordinary snowfall. The drifts nearly reached the first floor. Magnus and Siggy had done their best to keep the front and back doors clear, but it was an endless task. The house was well-heated and the cupboards and freezer well-provisioned. They were used to serious winters, after all. But their little bubble of warmth felt vulnerable. Only Eddy seemed to know how vulnerable. His family talked of the weather, and President Koil being even more of an asshole than usual, but nothing else. Satellites were down and they only had the local radio to rely on news – which was restricted to the area around Lake Manitoba. Sure, there had been some weird shit on the internet before that went south, but that was nothing unusual. You can’t believe everything you see on there, as his father was fond to point out.
Eddy took a sip of his coffee and shuddered.
He still felt weak, but he was not going to die. The spark inside him was still alight. He thought of Fenja – her gift to him – and he sent a quiet prayer of gratitude out to her. If she hadn’t appeared when she had done … he would have been giant pizza.
Eddy shook his head as he thought of all he had seen and endured. How could he begin to describe what he had experienced? The sky was as lively as ever – great movements of clouds swept across it. While they sheltered in their little community, gods and monsters duked it out for the fate of humankind.
And he still had a part to play in it.
He had to find the runestone. The only person who would know would be his grandpa.
Running Bear was fussing about outside, packing away his kit. He had just returned from a hunting trip, but instead of coming in to meet him, the old man had prioritised his packdown, his kills – lugging the deer he had shot into the shed and butchering it while it was fresh. The blood trickled out onto the virgin snow, forming a crimson question mark. Eddy waved to him from the porch, huddled in a blanket, but Running Bear just plain ignored him, absorbed in his task, or doing his best to cold shoulder him.
His sister came out and huddled next to him.
‘Have I offended him in some way?’
‘Don’t mind him. You know what he’s like. He’s missed you as much as the rest of us, perhaps even more. But he doesn’t like to show it. Maybe he is mad too. He’s always mad about something these days. Fracking. Federal taxes. The league results. The latest tweet from that dick Koil or propaganda from Patriot News. Give him time.’
Eddy watched the old bear shamble about, lugging another box from the back of his snow-mobile, face hidden by his fur-trimmed hat and hood, goggles and scarf.
‘Come inside, before you catch your death! Mom’s made some brownies.’
When they went inside their mother told them to ‘go on through’ and she’ll bring them in. Eddy and Siggy walked through to the sitting room, where Magnus was watching his favourite DVD, Nashville Lives, which featured country and western artistes performing sentimental ballads. The air was thick with pipe smoke.
‘Hey, Dad, how’s it going?’ asked Eddy, speculatively, sitting down on the end of the sofa nearest to his father.
‘How’s it going, son?’ Magnus blew out a cloud. ‘Not good. Not good at all. We’ve got enough fuel to last another month, if this keeps up; and with an extra mouth to feed, food to last a fortnight. The roads are impassable. We can reach the nearest communities on snowmobile, but they’re all in the same boat. No supplies are getting through. We’re left to fend for ourselves, as usual. Rely upon our own resources. Just like the old days.’
‘Oh, come on, Dad! The government aren’t just gonna let us starve, surely?’
Magnus gave his daughter a look. ‘You wanna bet? We haven’t heard anything from the State Department since this started. I reckon they’re in the same boat as us. Everyone’s probably been sent home. Every man, woman or pencil-dick for themselves.’
‘Same old story,’ said Sitting Cloud, carrying in a tray of brownies. ‘Good job the womenfolk are around to help everyone but themselves. Here tuck in. They’re the last batch I can muster.’
Eddy and Siggy both reached for them at the same time, squabbling playfully.
‘Is there any fresh coffee in there?’ asked Magnus.
‘Get off your butt, beloved, and go and find out! I’m sitting down! Been on my feet all morning! As usual!’ Sitting Cloud flumped into the armchair opposite her husband.
Magnus moaned, and got to his feet, shuffling off to the kitchen.
Sitting Cloud quickly reached for the remote and turned down the music, giving them a wink.
A contented silence descended, as the siblings tucked in.
‘Mmm, Mom. You’re brownies are the best. Boy, have I missed them! I can’t let my sister eat them all, otherwise she’ll turn into a fat squaw that nobody would want to marry!’
‘You!’ Siggy whacked him with her spare hand. ‘And nobody would want to marry you, jerk off! Dumped by your girlfriend in Italy! Well, that was a surprise! What number is that now? I’ve lost count! By the way, your exes send their love … not! What a loser!’
Eddy finished his brownie, licking the crumbs from his fingers. ‘Well, as it happens, this “loser” has a new girlfriend now! Sounds like you found her…’
Siggy and Sitting Cloud exchanged looks. ‘Okay, cat-who-got-the-cream. Do tell.’
‘She’s Nordic. Her name is Fenja Bergrisar. I picked her up while riding back across Europe. She was heading to a biker gathering in the Isle of Man – a small island in the centre of the British Isles. She was the reason I didn’t get on that flight. I just had to find her again.’
‘She must be quite something…’ said his mother.
‘She is. Like … nothing on Earth.’
Siggy frowned. ‘A brainless bimbo, to end up with a dead-end like you!’
‘Hey! take that back! She is not a “brainless bimbo”! She helped me get home.’
‘How did she do that, son?’ Magnus stood in the doorway, mug of steaming coffee in his hand.
They all looked at Eddy, curious, expectant.
‘She … pulled some strings.’
‘I can smell bullshit,’ said Magnus, sitting back down. ‘Hey, who turned my music down?’
‘Fen is … well connected. She really saved my ass, out there.’
‘Out there?’ asked Siggy.
He gestured widely. ‘On the ice. I rode home. Across the ocean.’
‘You what?’ Siggy shook her head in disbelief. ‘Oh boy, you’ve really lost it this time, baby brother!’
‘It’s true. The Lake is frozen, right? You can see that with your own eyes. Wondered why no ships have got through? The whole fucking ocean is frozen! I rode from Britain to Iceland to here…’
They all started speaking at once, but a cough from the doorway made them stop. Grandfather Running Bear stood there, slightly steaming as his damp clothing started to dry out.
‘It is true, what he says. I have seen the ocean. It is frozen. The Earth is frozen.’
‘Grandfather!’ Eddy went to get to his feet, to hug him, but the old man brushed past him and sat by the window.
Siggy placed a consoling hand on Eddy’s knee, and went to her grandfather with the tray of brownies. The old man nodded and ate it in silence. They waited for him to finish.
‘My grandson has ridden the White Road…’
‘But Grandfather! It was the Red Road that saved me. All that you taught me. It helped me stay alive on the ice.’
The old man brushed the crumbs from his plaid shirt. ‘You turned your back on the Red Road a long time ago, grandson. You play in that joke band, the “Runestone Cowboys”. You hang out with bikers. You date a Nordic girl.’
Eddy hit the sofa with his fist. ‘I have travelled thousands of miles, enduring all kinds of dangers, to make it back here, grandfather! Because I care for you all! I was worried about you all. I wanted to be back with my people, more than anything in the world!’ He shook with anger.
Sitting Cloud shuffled over to him and held her son to her breast.
‘Actually, if you really did all those things … that’s pretty impressive, brother! Even for you.’
‘The Dakota in you is strong, grandson, I do not doubt that. It is you who has denied it all these years, with your drink and drugs, your bikes and rock music. All along I have invited you to walk the good Red Road with me. All along you have chosen to walk the other way. I can only hold the gate open for so long. Your grandfather will not be here forever. Who will pass on the traditions then? Who will remember the old ways?’ Tears streamed from his eyes.
Siggy got to her feet and hugged Running Bear.
Magnus looked at them all. ‘What is this? An episode of Jerry Springer? And what is wrong with the “White Road”, anyway? What about my ancestors, my traditions? Isn’t anyone interested in those?’
The rest of them ignored him.
‘I’m actually glad to hear my son has been showing interest in the Nordic side of things. I would like to meet this Fenja. She sounds like a nice girl.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ Siggy, Sitting Cloud and Running Bear cried as one; but Eddy caught his eye and saw Magnus wink back at him.
The President has announced the creation of an elite new wing of the armed forces: Ice Force. Ice Force will comprise specially-trained Special Forces units. ‘Our boys will have the training and tech to deal with the extreme conditions out there. Nobody will match us, on the ice. Ice Force will kick their asses!’ Ice Force units have been in top secret development for ‘sometime’, said a Pentagon spokesman, adding: ‘Ice Force has recruited from the Armed Forces – cherry-picking the very best to protect American assets across the world’. General Surt, commander of this new wing, commented: ‘Ice Force will root out evil wherever it rears its ugly head. The world will be a safer place with the white skulls looking out for us.’ The General is referring to their distinctive all-terrain Death-maskstm. Sales of newly-released Ice Force merchandising is expected to spike with today’s announcement. ‘Do your patriotic duty, and support our boys out there, fighting for freedom, by purchasing official Ice Force products,’ the General urged. ‘Every sale gives them another round.’
Chapter 14: The White and the Red
Fenja walked barefoot along the frozen wave of the arête, oblivious to the thousand feet below. Eddy tried to scramble after her, but slipped for the umpteenth time. He was exhausted, after pursuing her for days. Every fibre of his body ached in agony, telling him to stop. But he could not give up, could not let her go. She carried his heart in a pouch, hanging from her waist. Her cried out to her, and she paused, half-turned to him, and smiled – silhouetted by the dazzling light around her. She had reached the summit – and the unearthly light beyond the mountain framed her in a pulsating aurora. Then, she took another step, seemingly into the abyss. ‘No!’ Eddy cried, scrabbling to the edge, only to see her traverse an ice-bridge hidden by the false summit. This connected to an even greater mountain, a fortress of ice so vast it pierced the sky, its utmost towers lost amid the stars. Eddy watched as her slender figure receded in perspective, until it reached the far side of the bridge, where massive doors opened, bathing her in a fierce blue light. Giant figures welcomed her and she followed them inside. The doors closed with a tremendous boom, which shook Eddy awake.
At first he was disorientated, then as his breathing steadied and his vision cleared, he realised he was in the hall, asleep on a mead-bench. A booming sound rocked the hall, making flagons tremble on tables or clatter to the floor. Flagons, for fuck’s sake!Eddy shook his head, still getting used to the seemingly solid reality of the hall the Elders had conjured up out of thin air.
The howling wind sounded like a ravenous pack of wolves, one that scrabbled over the roof – scratching, tearing, and trying to find a way in. Loose shutters and gates clattered and banged. The timbers of the hall creaked like a man o’ war in the high seas breasting the swell of a storm-lashed sea.
Many of the Wild Hunt slept through all of this, snoring loudly as they lay prone over the benches and tables, or on the floors. Eddy couldn’t believe anybody could sleep through such a tempest. The very air seemed antagonistic, and he was vibrated to the very core by its angry energy. He wrapped the blanket he had slept under around him tightly and shuffled to the fire pit, where he tried to stop shaking. He found a half-drunk goblet of mead, which he sipped on, hoping it would warm his blood. Even in Canada he had never known it to be so cold, and that was saying something. This freak winter seemed to be getting worse and worse. How long would they last out here? Surely they’d eventually run out of firewood, of food? Or could the Elders conjure them like so many fishes and loaves? Eddy cast an eye over their slumbering forms. Sleeping off the night’s excesses like the rest of the Wild Hunt, they seemed human enough – and yet … he had seen them fight off the giants, for crying out loud. Never mind the raising of storms, summoning of lightning, and performance of incredible feats of strength. How strong were they, he wondered? They were evidently not invulnerable, as Balder’s fate had shown; and not immune to vanity, folly or fits of anger either. From what he seen so far they were as dysfunctional as any family. Immortals with feet of clay.
Eddy was glad they were on his side.
One of them was even his lover. But … where was she? The dream came back to him then, and he cast about with increasing anxiety.
‘Fen? Fen?’ he whispered, but there was no response from the snoring forms. He desperately wanted to clear his head – and escape the fug of stale alcohol, body odour and damp fur and boots. Then it occurred to him: perhaps she was outside.
Eddy made his way carefully between the sleepers to the main door, which was straining under the barrage of the storm. Surely, nobody in their right mind would be out there? But then his Fen was no ordinary woman. And she seemed in her element in the blizzard.
Why did he have to fall for a frost-giant’s daughter? He never seemed to pick the easy ones, but this was taking it to a whole new level!
As he went to reach for the bolt, a hand grabbed his wrist out of the darkness. He went to cry out in alarm, but another muffled his voice. The grip was like iron.
‘Be still! Be silent, fool!’ the voice breathed low into his ear.
Out the corner of his eye, Eddy could see it was Mani, the pale-skinned pock-marked sentinel wrapped in his night-dark cloak, and relaxed a little. He nodded.
The watchman let go, and Eddy tossed back his hair like a horse flicking its mane. ‘I just wanted some fresh air!’
‘And kill us all? Do you know what is out there?’ Mani’s pale eyes glinted like silver daggers in the gloom away from the fire.
He shrugged. ‘Snow. Wind.’
‘More deadly than that. Look.’ Mani shot back the spy-hole and gestured him to it. ‘What do you see?’
At first, Eddy could see nothing except blinding whiteness that made him squint, but finally his sight adjusted, and in the snowscape he saw shapes moving, giant shapes. ‘Jötun!’ he whispered.
Mani nodded. ‘They are making ready to attack. We need to rouse the others without making a din. Let them think we slumber. We will give them a good morning greeting with our steel.’
Eddy understood, and following the watchman, stole quietly around the hall, gently awakening the Wild Hunt. Finger to lips, a gesture to the main doors, another to their weapon.
Within minutes, the company had been roused.
One Eye strode to the front, flanked by The Hammer and Tear. He wielded a mighty two-handed battle-axe, conjured from the same top hat as the hall itself. The rest of the Elders held similar weapons from another age; whilas the rank and file of the Wild Hunt had guns, knives and chains. Eddy cast about and found a large spanner. It would have to do.
At One-Eye’s signal, the heavy wooden beam was slid from the door and they burst forth, into the teeth of the storm.
The next few hours passed in a blur of blood and snow. The Wild Hunt was assailed on all sides by wolves and giants: the Devil’s Hogs – possessed with ferocity more beast-like than human, a blood-lust in their eyes – fell upon any who showed weakness and tore them apart; and the dark towering Jötun swept out of the blizzard, causing devastation with a single blow.
And yet both forces were matched by the men and the gods of the Wild Hunt – daubed in the Vergvisir rune, they stood grimly in the blood-stained snow. Not an inch would be given while they drew breath. Frithgard, One-Eye had called it, but they defended the hall as though it was Valhalla itself. Together, they were a band of brothers and sisters – united in their purpose, defending what they loved; whileas their assailants were driven by mere hate, by an insane desire for destruction, by a dark wish to snuff out the fire of the tribe.
The Hammer, Tear, and Rig urged them on, gave them courage, the Elders fighting side-by-side with the patches.
Eddy’s arms ached from striking blows and fending off attacks, yet the surges of adrenalin made him temporarily immune to the freezing temperatures, the snow soaking into his clothes, numbing his feet, his limbs. It was strangely exhilarating, fighting side-by-side with his gang. Blood pounded in his ears like war-drums, the braying of battle-horns. He was a warrior, for now, and to die in battle, weapon in hand, the blood of his enemy upon him, would be a glorious thing. But then the drumming changed to the steady thump-thump-thump of a powwow.
Over the rough music of the skirmish – the clang of steel, bang of a gun, and cry of the wounded or dying – he heard the high pitched ululation of his people, singing their laments, expressing their sorrow at the loss of life, giving voice to the ancestors.
Eddy stopped dead amidst the tempest, his weapon slipping from his hand. The white noise of the blizzard changed to a red, filling up his vision. The Red Road, calling him home…
Then, a blinding flash of pain as he was struck by a glancing blow, and he fell to the ground and knew no more.
Eddy was vaguely aware of figures moving about in front of firelight. He felt warm and safe. The smell of smoke, brewing coffee and baking bread relaxed him and he was convinced that he was back home. That he would wake up and see his ma and pa, his big sister, his grandfather… But when he opened his eyes, he was confused to see he was back in the hall on the Isle of Man, surrounded by the Wild Hunt, proudly comparing battle-wounds, repairing kit, or the storm-battered building, drinking, eating, and relaxing. He groaned.
‘Hey, take it easy, fella. You had a bashing.’
It was Cruz, looking all the world like a Valkyrie in her blood-splattered leathers.
‘Have I died and gone to Odin’s halls?’ he half-joked.
She smiled as she tended the wound on his temple, dabbing it with something that made him wince.
‘What’s going on? The enemy…?’ He tried to look around.
She pushed him back down. ‘Lie still! We’ve driven them off, for now. They hit us hard, but we hit back harder. They’ll be licking their wounds too, and thinking twice about having another go.’
‘How is everyone? Did we lose anyone?’
Cruz was tight-lipped. ‘Too many.’
Eddy’s chest tightened. She nodded to another bench. He turned his head and saw Blitzen sitting next to the prone body of Dash, head in hands.
Others looked on grimly at their fallen comrades.
One Eye’s voice boomed out. He was splattered in gore, but looked none the worse for it – indeed he seemed to more alive than ever. ‘We have lost good men and women, but they fell in battle, facing their foes, with weapons in hand. They go to my halls, or Freyja’s: Valhalla or Sessrúmnir.’ He raised his meadhorn. ‘To the Fallen!’
The Wild Hunt stood, if able, and raised their goblets and horns in honour.
‘The enemy will attack again. And again. Mark my words. They will not give up, for a greater evil drives them – uses them like a weapon. But we will not cower here like dogs, waiting to die. We must gather our strength and ride out again. The Hammer will clear a way to the bikes; Sol will melt a path for us. For we must ride. It will be a rideout like the world has never seen. The seas are frozen, and across this Bifrost we must travel – to where it all started: Iceland. The road will be hard. Nigh on a thousand miles of ice, blizzards and freezing nights, and who knows what perils? Prepare yourselves. We will burn this hall and our fallen within it – the enemy will not despoil their bodies. And our survival will honour their memory. Now, rest. Recover. Come dawn, we ride!’
Eddy’s head swirled. ‘Riding to Iceland? Are they nuts!’ He tried to sit up, look about. ‘And where’s Fen! Is she—’
Cruz pushed him back onto the bench. ‘Your girlfriend has gone.’
Eddy’s eyes widened. ‘No…!’
‘Shut up and listen! She asked me to tell you – don’t worry for her, she’s gone to see her people. To ask for help. And she’s left her bike to use as barter if we need to pay the ferryman for our crossing. I suspect we might.’
Prepper Wilson’s tips for surviving the End-Times:
If you haven’t got your bunker, stores, and arsenal sorted by now, it’s too late snowflake!
2. Give each member of your group a rating for their usefulness. If supplies dwindle start by killing off the lowest scoring first.
3. Daily target practice – preferably using live targets, e.g. those outside the compound.
4. Have plenty of old school Action Movies to watch – Arnie, Stallone, Seagal.
5. Raise and salute the flag every day while the national anthem plays. Be grateful you’re one of the Chosen in God’s Own Country.
6. Anybody who refuses to stand for the anthem, take them outside. They can take the fucking knee, while you deal with them. Back of the head.
7. Staying fit is essential. Even in a limited space you can maintain a daily routine. Push-ups, sit-ups, squat-thrusts. Don’t turn into a pussy. Keep those muscles toned. Daily body inspections of group members for any signs of slack.
8. Maintain discipline. Devise an escalating series of punishments. Any one questions your authority – they take the walk.
9. As the Alpha Male you have the right to choose any female. If they do not comply, drug them, then fuck some sense back into ‘em. You need to breed to continue the seed. It’s your patriotic duty.
10. Play board games and charades to maintain morale.
Chapter 13: The Pass
The furious waves lashed the beach, sending icy spray and stinging sand into Eddy’s face.
The Hammer wept, cradling Balder’s limp body. Honer staggered about, wondering why the laughter had stopped.
Rig pushed his way through the staring bikers. ‘I heard a gunshot…?’ He looked down, eyes widening. ‘You … fucking morons! Enforcer, this even outdoes your usual dumb-ass antics.’
The Hammer stood up, baring her teeth and clenching her fists, squaring off to the Road Captain.
Everyone stepped back, gave them room. Some cheered on The Hammer, others Rig.
The wind howled around them, stirring up devils of sand.
Out of the storm flew two ravens, then One Eye himself appeared – towering over everyone. He roared at them with a voice like a boom of thunder: ‘STOP!’, and his voice cut through the howling wind, making the Enforcer and the Road Captain freeze, fists raised, mid-blow. ‘Wild Hunt, harken! Ragnarok is here! We must defend ourselves! Protect yourselves with the Vegvisir rune! Like this!’ One Eye draw it in the air before him and a complex circular design delineated by blue fire appeared, branding itself in the mind’s eye.
‘Next time,’ growled The Hammer.
‘I’ll be waiting,’ said Rig.
The opponents turned away and busied their men.
The Hammer organised a group to carry Balder’s body away; Rig saw to Holder.
The bikers set to drawing the sigil upon themselves in any way they could – some stripped off their shirts and daubed their chests with charcoal from the fire-pits. Others used blood from fresh wounds, painting it on their foreheads or arms. Somebody found a pot of white paint and many decorated their helmets and the tanks of their bikes.
Eddy, Dash and Blitzen helped each other. ‘The Vikings used to draw the rune on themselves for protection against storms and blizzards’, said Blitzen, as he painted onto Eddy’s chest.
‘Good!’ roared One Eye, ‘The Vegvisir will guide you through the storm! You will never be lost! Now we must leave this place quickly and head to higher ground. The Earth trembles. Jormungandr thrashes its tail and I sense that soon this coast will feel its wrath. We must make haste! Wild Hunt, ride with me! Now!’
One Eye leapt upon his iron steed and gunned the powerful engine, and then led the bikers out of the beach, up onto the promenade.
The Wild Hunt followed – a serpent of chrome and leather shooting from its lair.
‘Just in time, by the looks of things!’ shouted Dash.
Eddy turned back to see a massive wave crashing onto the beach, and overwhelm the sea wall, smashing into the shop fronts and houses facing the sea. Some of the bikers to the rear were swept away – bikes and all – as though a grey dragon had hungrily devoured them.
The icy water chased the bikers down the road as they roared away from Peel, surging over their wheels and boots.
‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ Eddy gripped the bike tightly, trying to keep it upright against the force of the water. Holding his nerve, he kept revving the bike forward. They accelerated – fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety… At one hundred they escaped the grey serpent, shooting out of the doomed town.
‘Woo-hoo! Ton up!’ shouted Dash.
‘Jah! Jah! Bats out of hell!’ called out Blitzen. ‘Thank Odin!’ He blasted his horn and others followed, in salute of their escape, and those who didn’t make it – the sound drowning out the diminishing roar behind them.
Eddy shook with adrenalin, relieved, exhilarated, feeling more alive than he had done in … longer than he could remember: making love to a beautiful, otherworldly woman; narrow escapes from death; staying alive by skill and grace … Fenja was somewhere up front, with the other ‘woke’ gods – a deep rumble and the odd flash of lightning, the only sign of them from the rear of the pack. Eddy didn’t mind. He was riding with the Wild Hunt! He was one of them!
The euphoria helped to offset the dreadful weather blowing in from the coast. It was hard work, keeping the bike upright in the high winds and lashing rain. He was already soaked to the skin. But One Eye drove them onward and the pack trusted in the singularity of his vision.
The temperature plummeted and the rain turned to sleet, then snow.
Eddy shook so hard, he could hardly hold onto the handlebars. He needed to get dry and warm ASAP! ‘I’m getting fucking hypothermia here!’ he called out to no-one in particular.
‘Muh-muh me too!’ chattered Dash.
Finally, they turned off the two-lane black-top onto what appeared to be a farm track heading up into the hills. These were already covered in snow, and drifts were building up on the lane. That combined with the rough stones it was laid with did not make for pleasant riding. It jarred every bone of Eddy’s body, and he took to standing on the pegs.
The sight of the line of darkly-clad bikers snaking their way up the snowy pass was a strange one, thought Eddy distantly – his mind a flickering fire in the numb cave of his body. It could have almost been a scene from a thousand years ago if the two wheels were replaced with four legs, with real horsepower. He giggled at the thought, worrying waves of warmth washing through him.
Then the column of bikes came to a stop. Eddy strained to look to the front. Shouts were passed back down the line, hard to make out in the wind and rain.
‘What … are … they … sssaying?’ Eddy called, his voice a forced slur.
‘The pass ahead is blocked with snow!’ responded Blitzen, getting off his bike, and untethering his pack from the back.
‘So what do we do nuh-nuh-now?’ Eddy tried to ask, rubbing some life back into his arms.
‘Oh, guh-guh-great!’ moaned Dash, stamping his feet.
‘Come on, you three!’ bellowed Rig, the horn lashed to his back. ‘Can’t hang about here, unless you want to die of exposure. We need to find shelter!’
‘Is there any … up there?’ asked Eddy.
Rig gave him a stern look. ‘One Eye believes Snaefell will offer protection to us as it belongs to the old gods. Fenja knows the way. Turns out she’s at home in all of this…’
Eddy looked ahead, and caught a glimpse of her tall, pale form, scouting ahead. She was barely wearing anything – her bare arms and legs brushing against the snow. Seeming to sensing his gaze, she paused, stood up right and turned back, like a deer. Her fierce blue eyes seemed to emit a bolt of light in the storm’s gloaming. She beamed a smile at him, then plunged back into the snow, leaping ahead, leading the way up the now obscured farm track, which ran between the flanks of the hills.
Eddy’s blood warmed at the sight of her. She was like a she-wolf. There was something wild and dangerous about her that thrilled him to the core. He couldn’t believe he’d had the good fortune to sleep with such a goddess, and he only hoped he’d get to experience that ambrosia again soon.
But for now, all that mattered was survival.
The Wild Hunt left their bikes parked up along the track. Already they started to become obscured by the driving snow.
On foot, the bikers seemed ungainly, lugging their packs up the trail between the drifts, being defined by the passing boots. They could only carry the most essential of supplies. Everything else had to be left behind.
Eddy just hoped that wherever Fen was leading them, there would be a chance of a hot drink, even a shower. He was numb to the core, but his extremities burned painfully. The only option was to keep moving.
They trudged on, through the now heavy snow, which soon reached their knees, even thighs in places. The drifts blurred into the flanks of the hills, and it felt as though they passed through a slowly closing vice.
‘I can’t see how anything up here is going to shelter us!’ gasped Dash, breathing heavily under the effort.
‘We have to trust in Fenja,’ said Blitzen, as though stating a fact.
‘Yes,’ murmured Eddy, knowing it deep down in his heart.
The blizzard that now fell around them dampened any further conversation. They were entering the realm of the gods. Something about the dominating hills, the stern flanks of Snaefell, that demanded respectful silence.
The crack of a gunshot shattered the icy peace. A cry of pain. Shouts of alarm followed, and further gunshots.
‘Ambush!’ somebody shouted out, flung to the ground as an invisible blow struck him.
They burst out of the white veil of the blizzard – dark, ragged figures appearing and disappearing with deadly effect, leaving behind torn or burst bodies. A biker next to Eddy screamed, spun around and revealed a lacerated throat, before collapsing into the drift, gurgling blood.
The attackers wore wolf-furs that accentuated their outlines – making them appear to be monstrous. But the bikers fought back, returning fire, and one of the assailants was struck down, rolling towards them.
Face down in the snow; they could see the colours on his cut.
‘Devil’s Hogs!’ cried Blitzen.
‘They’re just men like us!’ shouted Dash, firing into the swirling snow at the fleeting shapes with renewed enthusiasm.
Suddenly, one of their number was snatched up by an enormous arm and hurled screaming into the white.
‘What the fuck was that?’ cried Dash, suddenly pale with fear.
An unearthly cry, muffled by the snow, made them all stare anxiously, trying to work out where it had come from.
‘Not like us…’ Eddy breathed, exhaling a cloud of frozen air.
The ground pounded beneath their feet, and out of the wall of white burst giant warriors, who swept bikers aside with arms like tree trunks.
Eddy looked up in horror. These new attackers were at least twenty feet tall, a vision from another age, another world.
‘Jötun!’ Holder cried out. ‘Earthquakers! I feel them!’ In the blinding blizzard, the blind Elder was not at a disadvantage – managing to duck at the slightest movement or sound.
The bikers defended themselves as best they could, but they were hopelessly overpowered.
The dark line of the Wild Hunt was being thinned out like a stand of trees.
A Jötun appeared before Eddy, about to smash down on his skull with a fist the size of a generator.
Suddenly, the giant was taken down by The Hammer – two-thirds of its size, but equal, it seemed in strength. The club’s Enforcer laid into the prone Jötun with her mighty fists, pounding it into the mush of the muddy, bloody snow.
Other Elders appeared too, larger-than-life and more than able to engage with the Jötun: Tear, Honer, Frey, Will and Way, they swept down the line, cutting down the giants as though they were wheat.
A boom of thunder and others were sent reeling. One Eye stood upon the hillside, calling down lightning bolts.
Soon the tide of battle turned, and the attackers were driven back into the blizzard, leaving the Wild Hunt to take stock. Eddy looked at the line, thinned out – but over half of them were still standing.
One Eye returned to them from the hillside. ‘It looks like we are not the only ones who have woken up! We have won the battle, but not the war. This will be the first of many. Be on your guard. Now, make haste! Let us make shelter before night falls! Fenja, lead on!’
Relieved to see Fenja still in one piece, Eddy followed with the rest.
‘What of the fallen?’ asked Dash?
‘They have gone to Valhalla,’ said Blitzen, grim-faced, ‘or will do soon enough, when the Valkyrie come to claim them. Let us not linger here in case they think we too are ready to go with them.’
Eventually, the adrenalin faded and Eddy was left feeling dog-tired. Going by the bedraggled state of the rest of them, he wasn’t the only one. He started to feel light-headed, and his limbs trembled with exhaustion – but had at least thawed out in the effort.
They had reached the brow of a hill, and finally, mercifully, stopped marching. From what Eddy could make out they had come to a circular enclosure.
‘This is the shelter?’ he wheezed, wiping his brow.
‘Get inside!’ commanded Rig.
With the last vestiges of his strength Eddy followed the survivors into the enclosure, where they stood, hurdled together like sheep.
One Eye, The Hammer, Tear, Honer, Rig, Fenja and the other Elders stood around them, on the outside of the dry-stone wall, and raised their arms as one. A low tone grew in strength until it pierced his very core. There was a flash of light, and the sound stopped.
When Eddy opened his eyes, he was standing in a timber-framed hall, lit by flickering torches and a central fire pit. There were benches, fleece-lined alcoves, pitchers of mead and trenchers filled with steaming stew.
The gods filtered in and sat at the high table, and with a nod from Rig, the men and women sat down with sighs of relief.
One Eye raised a mead horn. ‘Welcome to Frithgard! Feast, rest, and restore your strength. And remember the Fallen, who have gone to the halls in valour!’
‘The Fallen!’ everyone toasted, before setting to it.
Eddy gazed about in astonishment. ‘How…?’ ‘Don’t ask,’ said Dash, between a mouthful of bread and a mouthful of mead. ‘Just eat and drink and thank the gods!’
A Whitehouse spokesman today announced a massive increase in military spending. Over the next five years $300 billion will be spent on strengthening American armed forces and defences. President Koil was quoted as saying: ‘We need a stronger Army, a stronger Navy, a stronger Air Force. We need to be able to protect our assets at home and abroad. Nobody respects a weak nation. Nobody. We need to be the strongest nation on Earth. I’m keen to develop advanced weapons technology that will give us the edge over our enemies. They are some exciting ideas on the table, but I can’t say any more than that.’
Chapter 6: The Initiation
‘Here’s to the new prospect!’
Eddy clinked bottles with Bog, who he had met in a bar in Peel – the Banshees were doing a ‘pub crawl of the island’ and were currently doing their best to drink the west coast town dry. They were on friendly terms with the Wild Hogs and so were allowed on their turf, as long as they paid tribute – which involved getting everyone roaring drunk. Impromptu sessions had kicked off in some of the bars, and hearing the Irish jigs and reels, Eddy, still on a post-gig high and keen to party, had wandered into one and had bumped into the new friend – or rather Bog had backed into him with a handful of pints. They were both soaked in beer, but they just laughed as they recognised one another.
‘Red, you fecking eejit! Thought I’d bump into you here, but not literally!’
‘Bog, good to see you! Like the new iron.’
Bog was sporting a shiny new nose-ring – a design he had spotted since he’d arrived on the island. ‘Ah, that thing! My Knoz-ringtm . Help filter this filthy air. They’re all the rage in Douglas now!’ He nodded to the floor. ‘Shocking waste of good ale that…’
Eddy offered to get a fresh round in, and once this was collected he joined his new mate to catch up.
‘Ah, that’s more like it! Full glass, full tank, full woman!’ Bog raised his pint. ‘Slainte!’
‘Slainte!’ Eddy replied, laughing. They clinked glasses.
As the beer started to flow, Eddy filled him in on the recent developments in animated fashion. Pausing for breath, he took a thoughtful sip. ‘So, what do I have to do next, do you reckon?’
‘Well now, there’s the thing.’ Bog stacked some beer mats on his elbow. ‘Most clubs expect prospects to ‘show willing’ for a good year or so. Eat shit, basically. Be their bitch. Some make you do crazy shit. The criminal variety I’m talking about. Anything from breaking and entering to buggering a corpse.’ He flipped his arms and snatched the mats out of the air.
Eddy looked mortified, which made his friend chuckle as he swigged his beer.
‘But your fellas, the Wild Hunt.’ He tried the mat-trick on his other elbow. ‘They are gold standard bad arses. Feck knows what they’ll make you do!’ He flipped his arms and the mats went everywhere. ‘Shite!’
Eddy downed his beer.
‘Well, this is what happens if you fall for a bird from Val-fucking-halla… I just hope she’s worth it, Red.’
Slamming his empty down, Eddy’s eyes gleamed. ‘Yes, yes she is.’
‘Then, best of Irish to you, my friend. And get another round in. If you’re gonna hang out with the Vikings, I’d better teach you how to drink.’
The next morning Eddy staggered along the seafront, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the sun which was being objectionable – breaking over the town, shouting ‘Glory, hallelujah!’ when for some contrite ‘Hail Marys’ would have done. Cursing his friend, he shook his head, laughing at the confused montage of madness from the night before – which seemed to involve dancing on the pool table at one point, badly juggling the balls and balancing the cues on their chins; racing a dwarf down the high street on their knees; snogging a bearded nun; and other dubious activities. ‘Oh, my head!’ Eddy winced, gulping down the fresh air; hoping that the bile would subside. The sharp smell of brine, the screech of the seagulls, the piss streaked streets – everything made him nauseous.
It was early and there were very few signs of life – only a few small cooking fires smouldering down on the beach encampment. Detritus was devilled by the morning breeze across the promenade. A few bodies lay snoring where they had collapsed the night before, strewn like victims in a massacre. The place felt like a war-zone where a truce had been called.
Eddy’s head felt like a bloated jelly-fish. He had to do something to sober up, so he made his way down to the sea, stripped off and plunged into the spume. The shock of the cold made him gasp, but he swam out into the bay.
It was then he noticed another swimmer a few hundred yards away. Hard to discern more than the bobbing head amid the scintillation of shivelights piercing the pall of cloud. He shielded his eyes. Was that a flash of blonde hair?
He swam closer, curious.
By the time he got to the other side of the bay, the figure had started to emerge. Eddy’s pulsed race, as he recognised the tall, slim figure rise from the waters. Clothed in nothing except the dazzle of light, the foamy spume sluiced from her pale skin as she stepped onto the sand. She bent to pick up her towel, and drying herself, half-turned towards him.
‘Hey, Fenja! Good morning.’
Was that the ghost of a smile, as she wrapped the towel around her torso and walked back to the main marquee?
Eddy was glad the water hid his erection, but it took a while before he was able to get out.
A fried breakfast inside of him, and several cups of coffee, and Eddy was starting to feel normal again and ready for the challenges that lay ahead. As he sat back with a sigh, taking in the vista – no longer so offensive to his senses, he saw three burly Wild Hunt members swagger towards him – two men and a woman. They looked like they meant business.
Their large frames blocked out the view. ‘Come with us.’
‘Morning! I’ll just finish this coff—’
Eddy got up and followed.
‘So it begins,’ he muttered to himself.
Eddy was taken into the centre of the biker camp – a clearing by the main firepit.
‘Stand here,’ one of the three grunted, shoving him into the fire pit. He could feel the heat of the ash through the souls of his boots.
‘Hey, this is still hot!’
‘Best not to complain,’ offered the old man next to him. ‘Could be part of the initiation.’ Bald headed, with a grey-beard and pinched expressed. He held out his hand. ‘Gunther.’
On his other side stood a woman with a Mediterranean air about her.
‘That’s Cruz. She doesn’t speak much.’
Eddy nodded to her, but she ignored him – eyes forward, stance proud, paying no heed to the hot ash.
The foul reek of singeing rubber started to assail his nostrils.
A few of the patches gathered round – a bit of entertainment over breakfast.
Finally, the warriors returned, escorting the tall female with the hammer tattoos on her hands Eddy had seen in the procession. The crowded respectfully stood back.
She towered over them, glaring, shaking her head sceptically.
‘Audhumla’s udders! What a pitiful selection. These are the prospects? Are you sure?’ she gestured to the three guards in disbelief. ‘I didn’t order a plumber, a pizza guy, or a hooker.’
Gruff laughter from the circle.
‘Though I could certainly make use of them. Would make for an interesting morning.’
The three of them stood there, taking it.
‘So, you think you’ve got what it takes to join the Wild Hunt, do you? Do we look desperate? Better you leave now. Go on, fuck off!’ She snarled in their faces, pointing back to the town.
They stood there, chins out, heads high, boots smouldering.
‘Maybe they’ve welded to the sand!’ The Hammer roared as she pushed the old guy back. He fell on his arse in the ash, howling as his hands hit the hot ash. He quickly got to his feet, blowing on his palms.
‘Mmm. Maybe they’re serious after all. What do you think? should we let them prove themselves?’
Murmurs from the gathering crowd. ‘Why not? it’ll be a laugh!’ called out one, which got a few cheers.
The Hammer eyed them fiercely. ‘Very well. Prospects, you have a chance to prove your worth. Normally, it’ll take few months of being dogsbodies and the butts of all our jokes and pranks before we start to take you seriously. But these are … unusual times. Things are happening, happening fast. And there is something useful you can do… If you don’t fuck it up, then you’re get your patch.’
Each of them stiffened, keen to hear the task at hand.
‘One of our bikes was stolen by those Svartheim scum, the Devils Hogs. They’ve had it for a few weeks, stolen from one of our members in Switzerland. They’ve brought it over here to show off. Flaunting it in our faces.’
Growls from the crowd at the mention of the name of their arch-rivals.
‘It’s been kept in their camp at Ramsey. If you can steal it back, and get it back to here in one piece, you would have earned your patch. Do you except this challenge?’
Each of them looked nervous. Ride into the enemy camp and steal a bike from under their noses? It was a suicide mission!
Eddy suddenly caught a glimpse of Fenja, watching the proceedings from the main marquee. The flash of her standing in the morning light, naked, smiling, came to him. Without further thought, Eddy stepped forward and called out. ‘Yes, I accept!’
The other two did the same.
‘Very well. Our Rig, our Road Captain, will give you the details. You will use your own bikes for the mission and wear no identifying marks. If you fail, we don’t know who you are, and we don’t care.’ The Hammer left.
The circle disbanded, the patches ignoring them again. They may as well have been invisible.
Gunther and Eddy exchanged glances, rolling eyes and blowing out cheeks. Cruz quickly walked down to the cooling shoreline, and they stamped their smouldering boots out in the sand. ‘Well, Geronimo…’ said Eddy.
Rig showed them the photo of the stolen bike on his tablet. ‘Look hard. Remember the detail. Don’t bring back any other, or you’ll just be turned away. No marks on it, not a scratch, or your life will be forfeit. You don’t want to know who this belongs to, believe me. It’ll make you even more nervous. Just treat it like the Brisingamen itself.’
Eddy scrutinised the photo, letting out a low whistle. It was a work of art – a real show bike, a Bündnerbike Softtail Blue Edition – decorated with diamonds and gold-plated screws.
‘This is worth millions!’ gasped Gunther.
Rig gave them each a map of the island, identifying the Ramsey camp, plus a hand-drawn ‘reconnaissance’ map, with greater detail. ‘This is what our scouts have managed to find out. You may be able to find a way in through one of the drainage ditches, but the perimeter is going to be heavily guarded. The Hogs have guard dogs and assault rifles. They don’t mess about. They will rub you out in an instant.’
Gunther raised his hand. ‘Where will we find the ignition key?’
‘No need. Here’s the spare. Don’t lose it.’ Rig tossed it to the old man. It was gold, on a Bündnerbike fob. ‘Remember, work as a team and you may survive this. The success of the hunt comes down to collaboration. That’s the Wild Hunt way. No one hunts alone. Now go. Odin be with you.’
It was lunchtime when Eddy made the mistake of going into town for a bite to eat. He met Bog outside a chippy and was talked into some ‘hair of the dog’ (or Fenris’ Pubes, as the local brew ‘Wolf Moon’ was nicknamed, specially made for the Wild Hunt gathering).
‘Well, here’s some Dutch courage, you crazy fekker. Get this down you!’ said Bog, thrusting the blood-red pint at him.
Eddy shrugged at took a sip. Anything to calm his nerves and quell the sick feeling in his guts.
‘Oh, and here’s a good luck present!’ Bog tossed him a small paper bag.
Inside was a box. Eddy opened it, and saw a Knoz-ringtm.
‘Now don’t think I’ve gone all gay on yous or anything. I had a spare. I don’t like one up each snout-hole. Me. I like to sniff the air. Beer. A woman. The sea. Even if the air these days smells like the All-mighty has let rip a wet one.’
‘Cheers, Bog!’ Eddy had a piercing that had nearly healed up. He thrust in the spike with a wince, and clipped the filter into place, taking a deep breath. ‘Ahh! Wow. It really makes a difference, doesn’t it? It’s amazing what you get used to.’
‘The sky’s been shite since the Evil Sorceress blew her stack. Not good for yer constitution. These Knoz fellas are making a killing, but fair play to them.’
Eddy sipped some more of his pint, knowing he couldn’t have more. ‘Talking of making a killing, it’s the Devil’s Hogs I’m worried about. From what I’ve seen they don’t play nice.’
‘Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Just keep your head down. Stay shiny side up.’
‘I don’t have the luck of the Irish, like you.’
‘Mm, maybe not. We can’t all be born blessed with good lucks and charm. But, the Isle of Man is a mongrel – like you, like me.’
Eddy raised an eyebrow, puzzled.
‘Have you met many Irish-Asians before? Don’t say you didn’t notice my fine Irish coffee skin-tone? Anyways, Man has both Gaelic and Norse influences – a place where the worlds meet. It’s in the place-names; Hell, it’s in the bones of the land here. So, one thing I can offer you – whenever you cross a bridge here, say good morning or goodnight to the Good People.’
‘The Good People?’
‘The People of Peace, the Kind Neighbours, Themselves.’
Eddy was still non-plussed.
‘There’s more than one Fairy Bridge here, that’s all I’m saying.’ Bog tapped his nose, then raised his pint and finished it off. ‘Go get your patch and get your woman, Red! And savour the sweet air, for every day alive on this Earth is a fekking miracle, and that’s the truth!’ Bog was distracted by a good-looking biker-woman, who smiled provocatively at him. He got up to follow, smoothing his wild mane. ‘Now I’m gonna make the most of it, and you’re gonna get some food and caffeine down you!’
‘So, what’s the plan?’ asked Eddy hopefully, as they crouched amid the undergrowth on a hillside overlooking the Devils Hogs camp at Ramsey – expanding like a syphilitic rash from the edges of the north-east coastal town. It was mid-afternoon, and the air was filled with the rumble of bikes, gunfire, and the smoke of burning caravans and trailers. They had set light to the surrounding land, which created an intermittent wall of flame which stood between them and their objective. The blackened ‘buffer zone’ beyond did not offer much in the way of cover.
‘Beats me. Perhaps Ladyhawke here has an idea?’
Cruz, who still hadn’t spoken a word to either of them, lay prone amid the grass, eyes fixed upon the smoky vista of the encampment. She scrutinised the comings and goings of the packs of bikers from the main access points.
‘According to the map it used to be camping and caravanning park,’ offered Gunther, to nobody in particular.
‘Well, looks like they’ve evicted any residents…’ quipped Eddy, dryly, just as one of the trailers collapsed in upon itself.
‘They are animals. We must be insane to be even considering this…!’ complained Gunther.
‘Then walk away. Forget the Wild Hunt. There are other biker gangs, if you really need to join something. Me, I’ve never been much of a joiner…’
Gunther gave him a curious look. ‘Then why are you…?’
Cruz turned back to them. ‘A woman. It’s always about a woman.’
The two men looked at one another, surprised to hear their silent companion finally speak, her voice husky with the spice of Galicia.
She scrambled back to join them. ‘This is what we do.’ She met their puzzled stares, unblinking. ‘We approach from three directions, using the drainage ditches – they will be filthy, but at least they’ll be wet, protecting us from the flames, and providing cover. Also, that way improves our chances by three.’
‘Makes sense,’ said Gunther, ‘though I wish there was another way than their open sewers…’
‘Shit happens,’ added Eddy. ‘Go on.’
‘The compound where they keep the bikes is here. We’ll need a distraction…’
‘Ah, I was afraid you were going to say that…’ said Eddy.
‘An explosion would be good.’
‘An explo—! Are you insane!’ gasped Gunther.
‘She’s right. Mmm.’ Eddy scanned the hazy vista. ‘Some of those caravans haven’t gone up yet. They’ll have gas canisters in.’
‘Good. You create the diversion. Gunther, open this rear gate. It looks like it’s a five-bar one leading into a field, which leads onto this lane … here. I can follow that up the mountain road, lose them in the hills.’
‘Hey! Hang on a minute!’ said Eddy. ‘And that leaves you to ride out of Dodge, leaving us up shit creek, no paddle! No way, José!’
Cruz gave him a look. ‘They’ll all chase after me. Plenty of opportunity to steal a couple of bikes. If they’re like the Hunt at all, they’ll leave keys in ignition, ’cause nobody would dare to steal another patches’ bike. You can just ride back to where we’ve hid the bikes – take the long road home, heading north and following the coast. I’ll have to get mine when the craziness dies down.’
Eddy shrugged. ‘Well, I’m not happy … but it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve got a brighter idea, Gunther?’
The German shook his head, shame-faced.
Cruz held out her hand. ‘Then give me the key.’
Gunther cursed under his breath, but reluctantly handed it over.
‘Okay, let’s stash the bikes and wait for sundown.’
They hid the bikes in a small stretch of woodland called ‘Elfin Glen’ which had an access track connecting to the mountain road. It was a bit of a walk to the Hogs’ camp, via the circuitous route of the drainage ditches, but it felt at safe distance. On a bike it would take a minute.
They smeared charcoal on their faces, eyes pale in the twilight. ‘Right, let’s do this thing,’ said Eddy. ‘For the Wild Hunt and glory.’
‘The Wild Hunt and glory!’
Silently, they parted, each taking to their respective route.
Eddy made his way quietly through a plantation, hyper-aware of every sound he made – the slightest crack of a twig, his breathing. His boots sank into the carpet of needles, which fortunately seemed to suck up most sound. In the distance, the rumble of bikes, of death metal music, gun shots and wild screams grew louder.
He came to the edge of the pines and stared across a blackened wasteland of smouldering stumps. Covering his mouth and nose with his scarf, he scrambled down into the drainage ditch, his legs sinking into the icy gloop.
Gritting his teeth, he made his way towards the camp.
He tried to focus on the image of Fenja on the beach, turning to him amid the glittering light, as the water turned to raw sewage.
Gagging on the reek, he choked down the bile, and pushed on.
The nearer he got to the camp, the more the ditch became clogged with trash – bottles, cans, pizza boxes and barbecues, broken or unwanted stuff.
He froze as he heard voices nearby. Two or three Hogs, complaining about the shite beer and ugly women.
‘Give me a pint from my local and a night with that blonde barmaid any day…’
‘Yeah, the women here seem to have been bred with the cattle.’
‘You’ve never complained about a good pair of udders before.’
He crouched as low as he possibly could, hoping the muck he was covered with would help camouflage him.
A zip unfastened and a warm trickle splashed down on his face.
He flinched, but bit his tongue.
‘Ah, empty the tank. Make room for more of that piss.’
‘Yeah, does the job though, dunnit? Hurry up, Naz. Done playing with yourself yet? We’ve got to do a circuit of the perimeter before we can get our nosh.’
The zip is fastened and heavy boots crash through the burnt layer of undergrowth. ‘Hold up, you whazzers!’
The voices fade, and Eddy shuddered with disgust. His leather jacket took the worst but some went in his hair, clinging warm to his neck.
He pushed on, slipping under a wire fence. The surroundings changed to the manicured lawns of the golf course, churned up by bikes. The Hogs had turned it into their own motorcross circuit – a drunken biker skidded erratically across a green, plunged through a bunker, churning up the sand, and then shot out across the rough, leaping over the ditch within inches of his face, before roaring off into the gathering gloom.
Peeping over the edge, Eddy scanned the vicinity. The clubhouse was clearly the centre of things and was in full swing, going by the rock music and raucous sounds coming from within and outside.
The ditch headed towards the trailer park – now resembling some kind of cemetery for holiday homes. Most were burnt out shells, but one or two remained relatively intact. Why would they destroy them rather than use them as billets, he wondered? That was probably typical of the Hogs. Violence and destruction for its own sake was the order of the day with them.
Heart thudding in his chest, he crawled out of the ditch towards a trailer, slipping beneath it, hugging the shadows as a pair of legs staggered by. A belch and a crash of glass; then it was clear.
He wriggled out to the front of the trailer where the large gas canisters were hooked up. One in use; one spare. Looking around to check he wasn’t being observed, he set to work. He unscrewed both, unhooking the connecting pipe, and letting the gas escape with a sinister hiss.
Pulling out his zippo, he edged back to the ditch. Checked his watch. An hour since they split. Everybody should be in place. It was now or never.
He snapped the zippo open, clicked the flame alight, enlarged it to max, and then tossed it towards the canisters.
Diving into the ditch, he covered his head as the explosion ripped open the night.
The sound deafened him momentarily.
As the whining abated he heard cries of alarm, calls to action, bikes revving up, arclights coming on.
Now to get the hell out of here!
He waded along the ditch until he was a safe distance from the blaze he had caused, where most of the bikers had gathered.
With relief, he extricated himself from the foul water.
‘The things I do for love,’ he muttered to himself.
Amid the chaos, Eddy raced towards the hard-standing, where the majority of the bikes were parked.
Two or three Hogs lingered there, but were called over to help with the spreading fire. Moaning, they left to pitch in.
Now was his chance. Eddy scanned the bikes and picked not the fattest, but the fastest looking – less fork, more torc, as his buddies in the band liked to say back home. Choppers looked cool and were great to ride on long straight roads, but weren’t designed for these poky British lanes with all their twists and turns.
He jumped on the scruffy, stripped down soft-tail and thanked Crazy Horse for the key sitting in the ignition. With a flick of his wrist it started up. He gave it a couple of revs, and it sounded hungry for the road.
Just as he skidded out of the compound, he heard the shouts.
Cruz blasted by on the gleaming bike Rig had shown them.
‘Catch her!’ somebody roared. ‘Or you’re all dead!’
A posse of mean-looking bikes skidded in the gravel and growled after her.
Eddy prayed Gunther had sorted the gate, and floored it, hot on their tail.
Cruz shot like a bat out of hell, straight across the camp. Tents, people – it didn’t matter what was in her way.
A pack of a dozen bikes were already on her tail.
Eddy could see the gap at the far end of the site, silhouetted by the burning fields beyond.
Gunther had done it!
If she could make the gap … There were too many of them to go through all at once. It would thin them out, slow them down.
Eddy sped along behind the hunting party, ignored by them, and by those dealing with the fire. There was another blast. Out the corner of his eye he saw a trailer lift into the eye, and topple onto some of the Hogs.
Cruz shot through the gap like a blue bullet. That was one helluva bike, whistled Eddy.
Her pursuers awkwardly thinned out as they filtered through after her.
Then it was clear.
As Eddy reached the gate, Gunther appeared from the shadows.
‘I didn’t get time to go back and get some wheels!’ he shouted.
‘Never mind! Jump on!’
Gunther leapt onto the back and grabbed the rail.
Eddy blasted out of the compound. Riding across the smouldering fields wasn’t very pleasant, even along the farm track and he was relieved when they reached the far side, where it entered the cool pine plantation. In the distance he could see the headlight cones and hear the snarl of racing engines, as Cruz and her pursuers hit the mountain road.
Eddy headed to the Elfin Glen as quickly as possible, but when he approached their bike stash Hogs emerged from the trees and starting firing at them.
‘They found the bikes! Hold on!’ Eddy yanked on the throttle and the bike raced straight towards the Hogs, making them dive to safety.
Not letting up, he gunned the bike onwards, swerving to avoid the gunfire.
But then there was a sickening dull thud and Gunther fell from the back of the bike.
Eddy skidded to a stop.
Gunther’s body lay motionless on the floor in a broken heap.
There was no reply, except the revving of engines. Beams split the night.
He had to go.
Feeling sick inside, he bolted out of the glen and onto the mountain road, hearing the Hogs on his tail.
The road snaked up the side of Snaefell, the highest point on the island. Its dark mass loomed ahead, picked out by the restless beams of the front pack.
Eddy put his foot down and started to see glimpses of their tail-lights appear around the bends. He had to tip the bike low to take the curves at such speed – a lot easier than with a pillion.
He was still in shock about Gunther. Those guys rubbed him out without even thinking. This shit was getting far too real for his liking.
All for a fucking bike. No. For his desire. For Fenja.
All he could do was make Gunther death not be in vain.
He had made the right choice with the bike, and started to catch up with Cruz’s pursuers.
Snarling, he gunned the engine to a dangerous speed and overtook the lead biker, weaving erratically, creating a pattern of interference to make them slow down, to give Cruz a chance.
Eddy was all too aware anyone of them could put a bead on him at any moment, but it would be hard to at such speeds. The curves of the road were his friend. Each bend kept him alive a little longer.
They were high up now – the Isle of Man spread out below them, the lights of the towns and villages like a terrestrial firmament.
Wind buffeted the side of the bike and he had to use all of his strength to keep it on the road. Sweat lined his limbs, dripped down his face. He had to hold on; hold his nerve.
He shivered as the temperature plummeted. They were up high, but not that high…
Skeins of mist drifted across the winding road.
The stars blinked out as the sky was consumed by dark clouds.
Suddenly, small projectiles started to smash onto the tarmac, onto his visor and upper body.
‘What the fuck?’
Hailstones the size of golf-balls started to cascade downwards. Eddy had to weave as much as possible around them but it was impossible to avoid them all. He could feel the grip of the wheels becoming less and less reliable and it took all of his skill to start upright.
Behind him he heard a crash, another. Someone’s gone down, taken some poor bastard with him.
The Gods must be on their side!
With relief the freak hail-storm died away, as he descended the other side of Snaefell.
Maybe they would make it after all…?
Ahead, he saw Cruz, who pulled over at the empty grandstand which overlooked the sharp bend down to Douglas.
Eddy pulled up by her.
Flipping up her helmet, she asked ‘Where’s Gunther?’
‘He didn’t make it.’
Cruz didn’t say anything.
They came off the main road, taking an obscure back route: Lanjaghan Lane.
For a moment it seemed like they had given their pursuers the slip, but then a cone of light appeared behind them, getting closer and closer. It was hard to go at any speed along such a narrow, twisting lane.
Gunshots split the air.
At any moment, one of them was going to get hit.
Eddy braced himself for the inevitable.
Up ahead there was a small bridge. Eddy suddenly recalled Bog’s crazy advice – the kind of shit his grandfather Running Bear would come out. Or Grandpa Gunnar, who saw elves everywhere. Every stream with its resident spirit. Every rock and tree… He’d never given the old beliefs much credence … until now.
Until his life depended upon it.
As they flew over the bridge he called out, ‘Good night, fairies! May you sleep in peace!’
As their pursuer reached bridge something happened to him: he vanished into a bank of mist. There was a crash, and the broken chassis of the bike skidded out of the mist, along the road, coming to a stop against the dry stone wall.
Eddy and Cruz both saw this, but didn’t want to say anything, in case it somehow directed the wrath of the ‘People of Peace’ onto them.
Silently, they continued. Eventually, the back lane intercepted the Peel Road.
No more bikes were on their tail. They had shaken them off, or something had…
Bog’s words echoed in Eddy’s mind: ‘…every day alive on this Earth is a fekking miracle.’
Grateful for their lives, they headed back to Peel.
This great nation was built on oil. Over the last few years previous administrations have tried their best to dismantle the industries that have made our country the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful, on Earth. But no more! During his hugely successful campaign President Koil promised to reinvest in fossil fuels and he has delivered, for he is a man of his word. Over fifty billion dollars has been invested in oil, coal and gas since he returned to office. Our great president has personally overseen the launch of state-of-the-art oil rigs; the reopening of car plants, coal mines, and new extraction methods. His programme has created new jobs, new homes, new wealth. It has got this nation on its feet. America is working. The wheels of industry turn once more. The President always keeps his promises. Koil for America. Koil for oil.
Chapter 3: The Choice
Eddy awoke, shivering and damp. The ferry ploughed its way through the white caps, creating a see-saw motion which made him queasy. His travelling companion was nowhere to be seen, and for a second the unsettling thought crossed his mind – that he had dreamed her into being. And yet, her bag was still next to his in their temporary ‘nest’. He picked it up, and slinging his own over his shoulder, made a quick reccy of the deck.
It was early morning. Dawn was a red smear in the east. The chilly fog, bitter on the tongue, dissipated the sunlight in a thin veil. Seagulls keened noisily overhead, skirling about the funnels, which belched their grey smoke into the air.
Towards the rear of the deck, overlooking the stern, he found her – her tall, slim figure a dark outline against the pale mist. As he approached he heard her speaking – a strange guttural tongue – to herself, to the sea:
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan, siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum earfoðhwile oft þrowade, bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela, atol yþa gewealc…
The lonely sound seemed to echo the bleak vista; the haranguing gulls; the tang of brine. Eddy sensed a deep longing and loneliness in her words which echoed his own emptiness – something he had never been able to articulate or even acknowledge until now.
Sensing his presence, Fenja stopped mid-sentence. She turned and he saw the glister of tears in her eyes.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.’ He ventured closer. ‘It was … beautiful – weird, but beautiful.’
She scowled at him and went to light a cigarette, covering her lighter with the flap of her jacket.
‘What did it mean?’
Fenja took a drag of her cigarette and scanned the skein of wave-patterns unravelling from the wake of the ship.
‘It’s just an old poem…’ she shrugged dismissively.
‘Please, I’d like to know.’
Fenja gave him an appraising look, and then exhaled a wraith of smoke. She continued, shifting into English: ‘…atol yþa gewealc … the terrible tossing of the waves, where the anxious night-watch often took me, at the ship’s prow, when it tossed near the cliffs. Fettered by cold, were my feet, bound by frost, in cold clasps, where then cares seethed; hot about my heart – a hunger tears from within the sea-weary soul.’
‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome. What language is that?’
‘An old one, spoken by seafarers who crossed this Whale’s Road, as we do – to Britain.’
‘Far out, Fen. Were you a literature major or something?’
She looked at him scornfully.
‘Mm, shall I get us a coffee?’
‘Frappacino, right? Brrr. It’s chilly enough for me. I need something hot! Seeya in a mo.’
Fenja watched him go. Then turned back to the waves, she continued, a little contemptuously:
‘That man knows not, to whom on earth fairest falls, how I, care-wretched, ice-cold sea dwelt on in winter along the exile-tracks, bereaved both of friend and of kin, behung with rime-crystals. Hail showers flew. I heard nothing there but the sea’s sounding, ice-cold wave.’
Fenja didn’t seem very talkative after that, although Eddy was full of excitement at their crossing. They were making progress, albeit painfully slowly. After twelve hours the gloomy coast of Britain appeared and by then Eddy was glad to see it. The sea seemed to put his companion into a strange mood. He was looking forward to being back on dry land – with two wheels under him and the road stretching ahead. He’d been checking out the route on his phone, and just before they docked, he approached his impromptu passenger with a suggestion. She scanned the dreary docks of Hull with cold eyes. It didn’t look promising.
‘Well, this is the parting of the ways…’
‘Listen, I have a suggestion to make.’
She turned to look at him – stiffening.
‘No, nothing improper. I know you’re not the kinda gal to try it on with…’
She narrowed her eyes to slits of ice.
‘Not that that wouldn’t be nice…’
She glared at him.
‘But what I wanted to say was – how about I give you a lift to Liverpool. That’s where the ferry leaves for Man, doesn’t it? Where your big powwow is?’
Fenja sucked on her cigarette, scanning the docks. ‘Very well.’
‘Cool!’ Eddy went to high-five her. ‘Looks like we’ve got a deal.’
Fenja stubbed the cigarette off on his palm. The flesh sizzled, reeked.
‘Ow!’ Eddy looked at the burnt hole in his hand in disbelief. ‘Jeezus!’
‘But keep your hands to yourself!’
She slinked off, as the tannoy announced disembarkation.
They got out of Hull as quickly as possible, taking the York road – when it soon became apparent the motorway was gridlocked. It was early evening and the plan was to get at least as far as that city before they stopped for food. The ride to Liverpool would take roughly two hours twenty, but Eddy was determined to make the most of it. There was something about Fenja that … fascinated him. Yes, his hand still smarted – making gripping the handlebar uncomfortable – but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been drawn to something bad for him, as Siggy, his sister, would no doubt point out. There were a dozen messages from her on his phone, and half a dozen from his Mom, but he held off answering them. They could wait.
He had a hot one on his hands.
Eddy’s first impressions of Britain weren’t promising. The hinterland of Hull was, frankly, depressing. None of the charming quaintness he’d come to expect from cheesy movies. Red double deckers and postboxes, old-fashioned ‘bobbies’ on the beat, Big Ben and Olde Worlde pubs serving warm beer. It wasn’t even raining! It just looked drab – worn out suburbs and Legoland shopping centres, dismal high streets lined with empty units and big shed industrial estates. The countryside wasn’t much better … it seemed threadbare somehow. Of the picturesque villages and rolling, verdant hills he saw little evidence. Not so much the Shire, as just ‘shite’, as he overheard a local say when they stopped for directions – laughing coarsely. The people around here seemed, well, just odd. Hard-looking, unwelcoming faces like the grizzled coast-line: stern cliffs lashed by bitter seas.
At one point, pausing at a black-and-white striped pedestrian crossing, Eddy smiled as he saw an obese bald man in a tattered dress pushing an empty pram across – excruciatingly slowly. He tapped his fingers impatiently on his handlebars – until halfway across the bald man turned and shouted: ‘The voices in the sky told me it’s not safe for you to ride your bike.’ Eddy laughed about this with Fenja, but it rattled him a little – especially his passenger’s sober response. ‘He’s probably right.’
‘Come off it! Do you listen to voices in the sky?’
Fenja nodded. ‘You would be foolish not to.’
Right. Eddy had had his belly-full of such bullshit from both his grandfathers: incomprehensible Icelandic sagas from Gunnar (may his liver rest in peace); hokey Medicine Way shit from Running Bear. He’d grown up with it. Ever since busting out of High School, he had done his damnedest to avoid all of that hocus pocus. The only medicine he needed was rock and roll, a cold beer and a hot babe.
At York they stopped for fish and chips: they had to try them, Eddy had insisted. They sat by the castle ruins, watching the lads and lasses out on the town in t-shirts and mini-skirts. Eddy was impressed by the brevity of attire the local girls wore, or rather didn’t, considering how parky it was (according to one of the lads, brassing it out bravely, pint in hand). Fenja jabbed at her fish it suspiciously with the wooden fork.
‘Boy, they’re pretty hot around here. Alot of blondes – they look a bit like you. But not as …’
He remembered the cigarette butt, and held back. ‘How’s the fish.’
‘Better than these chips. I could only manage half of them.’ He belched.
Fenja didn’t react.
‘How about we go for a beer?’
‘How about we go?’
‘Hang on – you’re not doing all the driving. It’s a long ride after a long trip. What’s the rush?’
‘Why would I want to spend a moment longer with you than I have to?’
‘Hey, and I like your company too, Fen. You’re a barrel of laughs. You need to lighten up.’ He threw the rest of the chips in the bin. ‘I’m going for a beer. You can walk to Liverpool if you like, or come for one to wash down this English grease.’
On the way to the nearest pub they passed a visitor centre. Fenja froze outside and gazed through the glass at the display – a Viking longship.
Eddy whistled. ‘That’s was one helluva boat! Look at the dragon-head!’
Fenja started to recite something, but Eddy couldn’t catch it.
The glass doors of the admissions area suddenly slid open and Fenja walked straight inside. ‘Hey!’ Eddy went to follow her. ‘You can’t go in there! It’s clo—’ The glass doors slid shut in his face. He banged on them, but Fenja had walked inside the museum, out of sight.
He paced up and down for a bit, wondering what to do – then decided a beer would help.
Fenja found him in a local pub, sipping gingerly on a pint of dark English ale.
‘Did you have fun?’
‘My people…’ Her eyes were full of light. She seemed happy.
‘They didn’t catch you then?’
‘My people!’ she called out, grabbing his pint and raising it in toast, then she set to downing it in one, before Eddy could stop her.
‘Hey, buy your own!’
When she finished she slammed down the glass and smacked her lips, wiping the froth with the back of her hand. A ripple of applause and a few cheers went up around the bar. A loud track kicked in on the juke-box. She started dancing, to wolf whistles – pulling Eddy up off his feet. He was a bit embarrassed at first, but was soon caught up in her enthusiasm. It was good to see her let go – and boy, did she let go! She started to dance wilder and wilder – grinding and gyrating amongst the men, who began clapping and stamping.
Suddenly, from the other side of the bar Eddy could see policemen in their distinctive black and Nor’man-shaped helmets. The landlord pointed over to Fenja.
‘Quick, we’ve got to get out of here!’ Eddy grabbed hold of the dancer’s hand and pulled her towards the door. Laughing, she danced out into the street.
The police tried to barge their way through the beefy clientèle but the drinkers barred their way, knocking over stools.
‘Come on!’ Eddy ran, and Fenja sprinted beside him – as easily as a deer. They raced around the corner, out of sight of the pub and headed down a narrow side-lane in the general direction of the bike. It paid off – they appeared right next to it. Eddy unlocked it, and chucked Fenja a helmet. ‘Get on!’ He gunned the engine and they roared off, Fenja singing behind him.
They stopped a safe distance outside the city, pulling over on a layby along a country road. The sun was low in the sky – briefly showing its face beneath the lid of clouds. Pulling off their helmets, they both laughed with relief. They had got away!
‘What did you do back there to raise the heat?’
‘Oh, just a little sight-seeing.’
Eddy raised an eyebrow. ‘What is it with you and electronics? You seem able to affect them…’
‘Oh, nothing. It must be my natural … magnetism!’
‘You’re telling me. You had those guys lapping out of your hands in the pub. You’re … quite a dancer.’
‘And so were you…’ She pulled him closer. ‘You have a wild side too, Mister Redcrow.’ She pressed against him. She held him there for a minute – groin against groin. He could feel the heat of her loins.
‘Damn, I need a slash. Hold it right there!’
Fenja laughed and let him go. When he came back she was on the back of the bike, helmet on.
‘Let’s go, Redcrow!’
Arms folded, he looked at her in disbelief. She was pulling the strings alright! He shook his head. On a whim, saluted.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to wait with you?’
They were standing outside the ferry terminal at Liverpool. It was dark.
‘No, you go on. You have brought me so far.’
‘Well … look after yourself.’ He shuffled awkwardly. She handed him back the spare helmet.
Fenja pulled him to her and planted a hot kiss upon his lips. She lingered there and something crackled between them.
For a moment, Eddy looked at her – her elfin face close to his. Then, settling into it, he closed his eyes.
There was a flash and crack – and an image streaked across his mind’s eye like a sigil of lightning. An intricate knot of sharp lines – three interlocking triangles – scolded into his mind like a brand.
And far off, inside, reverberating through his whole body – the sound of thunder.
Eddy started shaking. His limbs … wouldn’t stop shuddering. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know—‘
She placed her finger upon his lips, then turned on her heels and walked away.
Eddy shook his head, tried to recover. ‘Wait! Will I see you again?’
She paused and looked back briefly. ‘If the Norns will it.’
And she was gone.
Eddy crashed in a backpackers. He was wiped out and slept like a dog – snoring loudly – much to the annoyance of his fellow dorm-mates. The man below kept kicking his bunk, trying to make him shut up. The pounding became thunder in his dream. He was chasing Fenja across a rocky plateau where rock pools bubbled and steamed. Above, a sky dark with storm cloud. With each flash of lightning he caught a brief glimpse of the sigil from Fenja’s kiss. It seemed to whisper to him, something he couldn’t quite catch in a strange language. Just on the cusp of hearing it a heavy kick from below woke him up – he sat upright in his bunk, body clammy, breathing heavily.
For a moment, in the dark, he wasn’t sure where he was.
Then the smell of socks, of body odour, brought him back.
Sighing, he flopped back onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.
He rose late and missed breakfast. The bunk-kicker was gone. The dorm empty except for his belongings, which he checked. Nothing missing. After freshening up, he grabbed a coffee and a snack from the vending machine and decided to check his emails.
There were about a hundred from his sister.
Sighing, he clicked on Whatsapp. Typed ‘S’. It would be about eight over there – if he was lucky, he’d catch his sister before she went to work.
Finally, she answered.
‘Eddy, is that you, you dirtbag? Christ, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!’ Her voice was a little distorted. Not a great connection, but it’ll have to do.
In the background he could her hear the sounds of the kitchen. The TV. Voices.
‘Wait a minute.’ She turned down the breakfast show. ‘Mom! Dad! Give me some space here. It’s Eddy! I know… I will … Just let me talk to him for now, okay! Sheesh!’
‘Sounds like all is well…’
‘Now you listen up, Eddy!’
‘Uh-oh, it’s that tone,’ he groaned. ‘Tsunami warning.’
‘Damn right. You’re way out of line. Not returning our messages. Letting us worry. We’ve been following the news and it looks like a real shit-storm over there in Euro-land. When we heard that Candy got back, we didn’t know what to think. I managed to collar her at Tergesen’s. She said you had split up. She didn’t have anything nice to say about you. You’ve blown it, little brother. You really are one tremendous fuck-up.’
‘Oh, here we go again.’
‘Yes, again and again – until you …’
‘Get a life, I know the drill.’ Eddy had heard this a thousand times before. ‘“When are you going to get a proper job? When are you going to settle down?’”
‘Eddy, you can’t be a teenager forever! Most of us grow up. You waste your talents in part-time jobs…’
‘It supports my music career…’
‘Music career? An axe-man in a pub rock band. The Runestone Cowboys…? How are you ever going to be taken seriously with a name like that? As far as I can see you guys just play for beers and kicks. As long as you can ride your little bikes and squeeze a few little chicks, you’re happy.’
‘Yep, that about sums it up. Simple needs: the secret of happiness. When was the last time you were happy, sizzers?’
‘How dare you! I love my life. Mom, we’re leaving in five!’
‘You were always the smart one – you’ve got a degree in history. First one in our family to graduate.’
‘The only one, by the looks of things.’
‘And what you’re doing with it? A clerk in a bookstore.’
‘Hey! You know how hard it is to get a job with a History degree? Anyway, Mister Forbes’ List – don’t lecture me on career choices!’
‘Ah, it’s just like old times. Absent makes the heart grow fonder, hey?’
‘I’m … sorry. But I … care for you, you dumb ass. Don’t waste your life away.’
‘Jeez, big sis. I luv ya too.’
‘Then listen up, you big lunk. There’s a job going at the local garage – they need a bike mechanic. I got chatting to Bill when I took the old jalopey in for its MOT. I said you’re pretty good with the tinkering. He told me you should give him a call. ASAP. Otherwise, someone else’ll get it.’
Eddy looked out at the street. The traffic. The pedestrians. Everyone rushing somewhere. What was he doing with his life? Where was he going? Did he really want to be a part-time rocker forever? The aftershow parties were good – but … what about his band? There never seemed to be enough time to organise themselves. They played the same old bars, going round in circles.
‘Well, thanks, sis – my career advisor!’
‘Don’t mention it, jerk. Call Bill, and come home.’
Eddy let out a sigh. ‘Okay, will do. Tell Mom I’ve booked a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland. I’m heading up there now. I should be back in a couple of days.’
‘She’ll be relieved. You take care, bro. Love.’
‘Love you too, sizzers. And … thanks. You’re a pain in the butt, but you mean well.’
‘Ring Bill! And get your red arse back here! No excuses!’
‘Not even a volcanic eruption!’
‘That’s nothing compared to your big sister’s temper!’
Eddy laughed. ‘Give my love to Mom, Pops and Grandpa. See you soon.’
Eddy rode. He had a big grin on his face. Rock music blasted through his earbuds as he revved the bike along the long road North. The northern English landscape was craggy and bleak, jagged fells looming out of the mist beyond the thin ribbon of road – which seemed vulnerable, as though its fate depended on the whim of angry gods, brooding from the mountain fastnesses.
Yet Eddy felt for the first time in a long while that his fate, perhaps, was in his own hands. The freedom of the road fostered that illusion – and he made the most of it while he could, for he knew, the further north he went to narrower his options would become.
Yet he had little choice, it seemed.
Aberdeen was the only airport still open and allowing flights to the US and Canada – for now, although who knows how long that situation would last? How many of his fellow countrymen were making their way their right now? Eddy took some consolation from the fact his bike allowed him to make swift progress. The travel chaos had infiltrated Britain like a virus, as they had discovered on making landfall – but it was with a warm feeling he reflected back on his brief time with Fenja. She was out of this world, that gal – so utterly other that it blew his mind! There was an aura about here – a fearless freedom, trouble, headfuckery weirdness, whatever – but Eddy found it intoxicating. He was hooked, and going cold turkey seemed less and less appealing.
Eddy pulled over at the brow of the hill. He had reached the English-Scottish border – the bare hills stretched into the grey distant: a kingdom of wind turbines and forestry plantations. He was expecting something more impressive. Border control. Heavy security. Instead, there was just a snack-trailer, portaloo and a sign, covered in stickers and graffiti, saying ‘Welcome to Scotland.’ It was hardly the Tex-Mex crossing.
Eddy looked at the long road ahead – two hundred miles to go to Aberdeen. He could make it by late evening, and catch the first flight in the morning. He’d managed to reserve a seat before he left Italy. He was one of the lucky ones. But then he contemplated a night in an airport terminal, the long flight. The prospect of a real job when he got back… He’d spoken to Bill earlier and he seemed keen for him to start as soon as he got back.
Eddy chewed things over as he devoured a roll, sitting outside the roadside café in his leathers. He’d come so far… A few more hours and he’d be home. His holiday would all be over. What a fuck up it had been!
Well, not quite.
He circled the butt-burn on his palm, smiling fondly. That kiss! And there was the dream. The sigil. Her strange songs. Her dancing. Her way of making things go haywire. That woman had magic!
Then his sister’s nagging came back to him, and beyond that, the chorus of disapproval of his Mom, Sitting Cloud; his father, Magnus; and his grandfather, Running Bear – buzzing in his mind like the midges of Manitoba. All telling him to: sort himself; eat well; man up; or, follow the good Red Road.
Eddy closed his palm, curling it into a fist.
He got onto his bike, fired it up, and turned it back – to the South – shooting off down the road.
Overhead, the glowering skies flashed with a sigil of lightning.
In a press conference this morning at the White House President Koil dismissed the recent reports by ‘doom-monger’ climate scientists, who claim the extreme weather events we have been witnessing across the States and around the world in the last year are the result of so-called ‘Climate Change’. President Koil made it very clear that he sees these reports as evidence of ‘Fake News’ and renewed his campaign commitment to ‘make war on fake news’. The President said ‘the climate changes every day’ and it is ‘nothing to write home about’. To say the extreme weather events – hurricanes, floods, wild fires – are the consequence of man’s actions, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, is, the President said, ‘a blatant lie’, and an ‘attack on democracy’. “These people want to shut down our oil industries, our coal industries, our car industries. They want us living in straw huts like Third World savages.” Afterwards, a Whitehouse spokesman said ‘Third World savages’ was just a ‘figure of speech’ and the President meant no racial slur by it. He had ‘a lot of Third World friends’. Many of them work at his chain of hotels around the globe.
Chapter 2: Terminal
‘So, what’s your story?’ Eddy asked, sipping a coffee and munching sceptically on a croissant.
They sat outside a service station café, just over the border into France on the outskirts of Strasbourg – which was overflowing with weary travellers. Some had a clearly spent at least one night there and the place had the air of a refugee camp. Folk sitting hunched exhausted, blankets over their shoulders, cradling a steaming cup or a half-eaten sandwich. Others recumbent in sleeping bags, on any spare floor. Eddy knew how he felt – four hundred and seventy seven miles since Pisa, another four hundred to go to Calais, but at least he was over the halfway point. A plasma screen blared out the latest news, watched avidly by the stranded – each latest revelation leading to more gasps, groans and curses. A spokeswoman from the Civil Aviation Authority was blathering on robotically: ‘There is no telling how long the eruption would last. The airspace above Europe will be closed for the foreseeable future, unless there was a dramatic change in wind direction.’ The studio cut to shots of airports and ferry terminals across the continent – aisles of awkwardly slumbering travellers like the dead waiting for resurrection, the ‘cancelled’ litanies of departure boards – showed the misery was shared with millions in the same plight.
‘My story?’ Fenja smiled. ‘You … people seem to like stories, don’t you?’
‘All the time.’ Eddy grinned. ‘Especially my people. My late grandfather Gunnar was always telling me stories.’ He looked wistful for a moment. ‘But … you distracted me. Answering a question with a question. Cunning! You could be a politician.’
‘Could I?’ Fenja considered the idea.
Eddy caught her eye. ‘Anyway…?’
‘Ah, yes. My story. A traveller, like you. In a place I don’t belong, like you. Trying to get … home. Like you. What more do you need to know?’
‘Your family, your job, what you love, what you hate…’
‘Mm, interesting. I’ll get back to you on those.’
Eddy gave her a puzzled look. ‘Ah, the mystery woman.’
‘Yes, that’s it. My story is … mystery.’
They enjoyed their breakfast in silence for a while.
‘Don’t you want to know my story?’ Eddy finally asked.
‘Why should I?’ Fenja lit up, despite the sign and the frosty stares.
Eddy considered this as he contemplated his coffee. ‘Because I’m giving you a lift. Because we’re sharing the road. Because we’re fellow human beings, caught up in this mess.’
‘Katla. The ash-cloud and all that shit. A bit of dust and this whole continent reverts to the Dark Ages. Doesn’t take much.’
‘For it all to come crashing down. You can’t even get on the travel websites to find out what’s going on. They’re all jammed. Tried to book tickets for Eurostar. Forget it. I figured my best shot was to haul my sorry ass to Calais, and take my chances at the ferry terminal. Get to Britain and ride up to Scotland – apparently a couple of their airports and still letting out flights. This trip has been a disaster – literally. I might as well head back.’
‘I was meant to be touring Europe with my lady … my ex-lady… but she dumped me in Italy. Wonder how she’s fairing?’ He looked out at the grey skies. ‘If she had any sense she would have got on the last flight out of Dodge. I had to carry on regardless – bison-headed, my other grandfather would say. Look where it’s got me…’
Eddy finished his coffee. Sighed.
‘So, where are you heading?’
‘To Ellen Vanin.’
‘The Isle of Man I think it’s called these days. There’s a big … meeting there. I’ve been … called.’ She looked into the middle distance.
‘The TT Races? Always wanted to go there. Isn’t that earlier in the year?’
‘No, not that.’
‘I’m meeting tribe.’
‘Ah, I see. Well, let’s hope we can get across. The English Channel – only twenty one miles but it might as well be the Pacific. How good at you at swimming?’
‘We’ll get across.’ She smiled that smile again. ‘Get me there. I’ll take care of it.’
Eddy looked at her as she got up to go to the bathroom. She walked past the long queue and went straight in, causing stunned silence, followed by a chorus of angry voices.
They were at some service station somewhere in Luxembourg around the six hundred mile mark. Time to fill up for the third time since he’d set off. Eddy squeezed the petrol pump, watching the euro counter whizz round alarmingly rapidly. ‘Jeez, the cost of gas over here. It’s amazing you guys drive anywhere.’
Fenja looked agitated in the forecourt, pacing up and down. The legs had a hypnotic effect on some of the drivers. A long line of vehicles stretched back onto the road, into the distance. It had taken alot of nerve to ride straight in, but ‘it was every man for himself’, as Redcrow put it. ‘Survival of the fastest.’
‘Don’t these places always look the same?’ He called over. ‘Same plastic shit the world over. Bums me out.’
When Eddy had finished, tapping the last few drops out, Fenja walked back to his pump.
‘Well, looks like we’ve hit the jackpot again.’ He groaned, nodding at the final total displayed. He started to pull out his billfold.
His passenger leant nonchalantly against the pump, as though against a tree. She inspected her nails as Eddy’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. ‘Wha—!?’ Both counters spun around until they returned to zero.
‘How– how did you do that?’
‘That?’ She shrugged. ‘Me and electronic things never get on. They always seem to go haywire when I’m around. Don’t know why.’
Eddy watched as she straddled the bike, sliding up onto the passenger seat. ‘Coming?’
The petrol pump attendant was busy with a never-ending queue of customers. Shaking his head in disbelief, Eddy got on and fired her up. He set the tachometer back to zero. ‘I have to do it manually.’
‘I’m sure.’ She blew a kiss to the motorists as they accelerated off.
As they approached Calais they found the roads increasingly congested, until they saw a sign that flashed in French, German, Italian and finally English: ‘Ferry Terminal closed until further notice.’
‘How can it be closed!’ spluttered Eddy.
A truck-driver nearby, shaking his head. ‘A bloody farce, that’s what this is! So many people have tried to get there; they’ve had to shut it down. Evacuating Europe. Like flamin’ Dunkirk – my Pap was in it. He’d turn in his grave, God bless him. Doubt they’d send a fleet of fishing boats over.’ The trucker cast an ogling eye over the Nordic woman. ‘Hear they’re sending the Navy down to Santander – fat lot of good that’ll do us, stuck here. Your best bet is Rotterdam, mate. They’re still sailing from there, far as I know. Good luck to you and your bird.’
‘Your bird?’ Fenja queried.
Eddy grinned, checked the atlas. ‘Rotterdam, jeez. This really is turning into a non-stop funaround…’ He found it, and worked out a route. ‘Come on, before everyone and their dog has the same idea!’
They rode through the night until they arrived at the port in the small hours of the morning. It was as dismal as its name suggested – a squalid neon Purgatory, where the tourist dead awaited the Ferryman. The red tail-lights blurred in the rain into a continuous smear as traffic crawled towards the terminal – but Eddy managed to filter through without any prangs, more through luck than skill as the toll of the journey made him spaced out and lacking in the usual grace he felt on two wheels.
Nearly twenty hours on the road.
Mercifully, they were finally there.
The large crowd had gathered out of the ticket office, trawling luggage, barely kept in check by anxious-looking, exhausted security guards. It was clear many of the travellers had reached the end of their tether. Babies screamed. Adults snapped. Arguments were breaking out. There was a nervous desperation in the air. The barriers seemed very flimsy.
As Eddy stretched – stiff from the long ride – Fenja slinked over to the crowd and seemed to pour through them. This caused further uproar – but when an angry Brit harangued her, she turned to look at him and he fell silent. Like a cat sauntering along arrogantly she made her way to the front of the queue.
A little while later she returned with two tickets.
‘How did you get those?’
‘Never mind. Let’s go. The ferry is leaving soon.’
Eddy rode the bike with relief onto the roll-on, roll-off ferry, parked it and killed the engine. The doors started to swing closed behind them. A manic traveller tried to leap aboard at the last minute, plunging into the widening gap.
‘God! Man in the water!’ Redcrow shouted. He started to pull off his jacket to go in, but Fenja held him back.
There were what sounded like gunshots and screams, muffled as the doors clanged shut and the engines throbbed into life.
‘Jeez–us. All Hell is breaking loose out there!’ He started to shake with adrenalin. ‘I could have saved him. Why did you stop me?’
‘So you could get yourself killed? I saved your hide, mister! Don’t mention it!’ She turned on her heels and headed to the stairs.
Redcrow caught up with her as she reached the passenger lounge. ‘Let’s find a couple of chairs. I need to sit down.’
As they entered, they could see all were taken – and many were sprawled on the floor. The place was stuffy with a damp smell of wet and weary travellers, coughs and sneezes, murmurs of subdued conversation and a blaring TV.
Fen kept walking. ‘Up on deck.’
‘It’ll be freezing!’
‘We can keep each other warm.’
Eyebrows raising, Eddy followed.
Fenja found a spot, next to one of the funnels. It let out some warmth. They arranged their bags into a nest, zipped up their jackets.
She offered him her arms. ‘For survival purposes only.’
They huddled together, under the stars, the sea surging around them, the lights of Rotterdam fading into the distance. Fires were breaking out, sirens flashing. Then, a small explosion – a muffled boom in the distance.
‘Looks like we got out just in time! That could have been us.’
Eddy inhaled the scent of her hair, found himself nodding off. After the epic ride, he was exhausted. The slow undulation of the ferry as it ploughed its way through the waves rocked him. His eyelids grew heavy. Within minutes he was fast asleep, head resting on her shoulder.
Fenja stared up at the sky, wide awake, eyes filled with stars. ‘Allfather, I am coming.’
Extract from Thunder Road copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020