Tag Archives: AntiFascist

Belly of the Whale

Öxnadal, Iceland

Chapter 23: Belly of the Whale

‘Well, Snorri, you old fox. Even you did not expect to see this! The Fimbul-Winter is truly here!’

Having lived alone for most of his adult life, Snorri was used to talking to himself. He did not see it as odd. ‘It’s the only way I can have an intelligent conversation around here!’ he would joke. In truth, he’d had plenty of company over the years – hundreds of Gimli’s brightest hopes, scratching out there sentences in his classroom while he tried to kindle in them a love of history and literature, geography and art; and then, after he retired, the various audiences he shared his considerable repertoire of tales with. He had been working on an oral history of Gimli for decades, painstakingly collecting family histories, anecdotes, songs, folk tales, jokes, folklore … anything. He took perfunctory notes, sometimes audio recordings, but most were stored in his carpet-bag of memory. He felt it his duty to keep the material alive, in circulation, fearing it would die out if it was locked in written form. Whenever he heard a tale, he would exchange it for one of his own. A joke for a joke, a song for a song, and so on. It seemed fair barter. The fact he was as good a listener as speaker, made him welcome around most people’s hearths. Many found themselves opening their hearts to him, and sharing things they hadn’t talked about in years. Secrets and ghosts, and tears of joy and sorrow.

Yes, he had plenty of company. Returning to his small place he would reflect upon what his snares and traps of smiles and handshakes had brought him. He never went hungry.

His bright, canny gaze swept over the flatland, scanning left until it alighted upon the cluster of buildings he knew as home – so frail and vulnerable looking against the might of this freak winter.

‘Ah, good citizens of Gimli. May Heimdal protect you!’

He replaced his goggles and hood, and, taking up his poles, skied along the lakeshore down towards the scattered homes on its fringes. 

As he skied, he sang a Dakota tune to himself about the return of the Thunder Bird, which heralded the Spring.

The first house he came to was the Redcrow’s place. He’d heard how they were fearing the worst for their son, young Eddy, and so Snorri decided to call in on them, to be neighbourly.

He placed his skis against the porch, and stamping his boots free of snow, he knocked on the door.

Sitting Cloud answered, looking flustered in an apron. Good smells were coming from inside, as well as cussing from her husband, yelling from her daughter, and snoring from her father.

‘Well, well, look who rolled down the hill!’

‘I was passing by. Thought I’d check in on you.’

‘What, are you the district nurse now?’ She laughed. ‘Better come inside then, dry your boots. Quick, before we lose the heat!’ Sitting Cloud bustled him inside. She noted the brace of conies. ‘Look at you, the great white hunter!’

Snorri carefully put down his rifle, and lifted the rabbits off. ‘Figured I needed something for my pot, but here – have one! A gift!’

‘Oh, Snorri…’

‘Go on. No point in being backwards in coming forwards. We all know how hard it is to keep bellies fed at the moment, with the roads blocked, and the stores running low.’

Sitting Cloud accepted it, giving him a peck on the cheek and a hug.

‘What’s this? I turn my back for five minutes and you’re having an affair with a senior citizen!’ It was Magnus, standing in the doorway, a bear of a man in an Icelandic sweater.

‘Well, he’s in good shape, husband – unlike you!’ Sitting Cloud laughed, slapping his sizeable belly.

‘Keep feeding us your infernal pulses and beans and we’ll all end up like him! A streak of piss in the snow!’ He roared, and gave their visitor a bear-hug. ‘How are you, you old fox!’

‘Trying to breathe!’ Snorri gasped.

‘Come in! Have a shot of something warming…’ Magnus started to clatter around the drinks cupboard and finally found two unused glasses, which he dusted with the bottom of his sweater.

‘Look! He’s brought us a rabbit!’

‘Then you are thrice-welcome, Snorri! Sit. Warm your bones. Tell us your news. We’re all in the dark here now the internet has gone down. According to my blessed daughter that really signifies the end of the world!’ he yelled across the room.

‘Keep it down, you oaf. Father is trying to sleep!’ said Sitting Cloud, clearing a chair for their guest.

‘That’s all he does these days!’ rumbled Magnus.

‘So would you, if you’d hunted down a mankiller!’ she hissed.

‘Yeah, yeah. How grandfather saved Gimli. We’ll never hear the end of that one!’

Snorri was already very familiar with how the Sheriff and Running Bear tackled the Wendigo. The details had been kept away from the press, but the ‘Gimli grapevine’ soon had worked it up into legend. He still needed to talk to Ava and the old man about it – but the heavy snow had caught them all off-guard, and most folk had been snowed in for days now.

‘Here!’ Magnus presented Snorri with a shot glass of vodka and clinked it with his own. ‘Skol!’

Snorri waited for his host to settle, sipping his vodka slowly. ‘Ah, how I’ve missed your antifreeze, Magnus!’ They watched the log-burner for a while, while Sitting Cloud fussed in the kitchen. Custom dictated they offered him chocolates and coffee, but they were running low. ‘How are you all … bearing up?’

Magnus downed his vodka, leaned in close and spoke low: ‘Siggy is taking it the worst. She won’t give up. Believes he’s still out there somewhere. Surviving – in this!’

‘What about …?’ Snorri nodded to the kitchen.

Magnus blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, a mother, y’know. He was the apple of her eye. She’s coping by going into overdrive. Says we need to keep his room ready, the place warm and broth on the go, as though he was going to walk through the door at any minute!’ He shook his head, staring at the empty glass.

‘Eddy is a chip off the old block. If he’s anything like you two stubborn old mules he’ll be out there somewhere, making a go of it. I just know it.’

‘See! See! What did I tell you!’ It was Siggy, standing in the door from the bedrooms, looking wild-haired and dressed in a Rocky and Bullwinkle onesy and dressing gown, with one slipper.

‘Siggy, please!’ groaned Magnus.

‘Sit down, love. Have something to eat…’ implored Sitting Cloud.

‘Hey, Siggy’s right. It’s a tough old world out there at the moment, but we can’t give up hope.’

‘I can hear a story coming on…’ Magnus smiled.

‘Only if you want one…?’

‘Please, go on.’ Sitting Cloud sat down and gestured to her daughter, who curled up onto her.

‘You may well know this tale but I find with the good ones you can tell them again and again – like drinking a glass of water. Always hits the spot when you’re thirsty!’

‘Get on with it then!’ said Magnus, pouring them both another shot.

‘Rabbit lived with his grandma in their snug old lodge. Every day he went a-hunting. But you know what? No matter how early he got up, someone always beat him too his traps, leaving them empty. “Darn it!” said Rabbit. The only clue who it was – a very long foot print. “I’m gonna get up super early tomorrow, and catch that varmint red-handed!” So, back he went to his lodge, and tried to get an early night’s sleep, but he could hardly settled in anticipation. By the time he finally fell asleep rooster woke him up. He sprang out of bed. ‘The traps! The snares!’ He scarpered to them, but it was already too late. The long-footed thief had already been and got his breakfast, courtesy of his efforts. Rabbit hopped about in vexation. He returned to his grandma empty-handed again. He complained about his rival to his grandmother, who wondered what he had against him. She was wiser and perhaps knew the truth of it, and smiled at her grandson’s plans to stay awake all night to catch the culprit. He went back to the snares and traps and hid among the undergrowth. Using a strong bowstring, he set a snare by the tell-tale tracks, hoping to catch the secret hunter. He was tired from all his hard-work and lack of sleep from the night before, so he nodded off. When he awoke it was day. He panicked, but to his surprise, he found his trap had worked. He had caught the thief who was the Sun itself! Rabbit ran home and told his grandmother in great excitement. “I’ve caught him! I’ve caught him!” “Who have you caught, grandson?” “A very bright fellow. So bright in fact, it hurts me to look directly at him!” “Hmm,” pondered grandmother, looking at the grey sky and shivering. “I think you should go back and let him go and quick!” So, Rabbit ran back at top speed and sure enough, he found Sun caught in his trap, all tangled up with the bow-string. “Get me out of this mess this instant! I’ve got a busy day and you’re making me late!” blazed the Sun in his fury.  Rabbit felt the heat of his wrath, but did as he bid. He ducked and dived and, finally, with his good hunting knife – snick – cut Sun free. Immediately, Sun soared up into the sky and returned light and heat to the world, which was starting to get dark and chilly. Rabbit breathed a sigh of relief, but winced – for a patch of fur between his shoulders had been scorched yellow by the sun and remains so to this day, a constant reminder of when Rabbit caught the Sun.’

Snorri finished his tale, and was glad to see Magnus, Sitting Bear and Siggy all sitting there, gazing into the flames of the burner.

‘Well,’ he stretched. ‘I best be on my way. Thanks for the drink. And don’t worry about a bite to eat. I’ve got plenty to keep me going!’

He got up and hugged them one by one.

Magnus handed him his rifle; Sitting Cloud the remaining rabbits.

Putting on his skis, he waved to them as they stood in the doorway. ‘Don’t give up hope, the sun will come back!’ 

Snorri carried on his way, his load slightly lighter – he had six rabbits left – but his heart fuller. He hoped his story helped in some way. On a practical level the rabbit certainly would – providing a meal for a day. Stories, he found, provided food that lasted longer. Despite all the sophistication of modern life, or perhaps because of it folks needed nourishing stories to live by. For too long they had lived off the fast food kind of stories pumped out by the mass media. A healthy mind was like a healthy body – and he prided himself in keeping in shape – you needed to feed it well. A good diet; regular exercise. If you eat junk, you feel like junk, and your dreams become filled with junk. Here he was, in his seventies, and still running marathons and using his extensive memory every day. Use it, or lose it, as they say. Most folks relied upon ‘the Cloud’ or an external hard-drive to save things and no longer try to remember anything. Passwords and pins that’s all people remember these days, thought Snorri, pushing on through the snow. Passwords and pins!

He waved to the Sheriff and one of her deputies, doing the rounds on their snow-mobiles. Ava Rivet was a good woman, thought Snorri. Gimli was lucky to have her. Unlike that waste-of-space Mayor. Even as a pupil, Sonny Thornson had been a selfish bully, always picking on the other kids, stealing their snacks. Now as Mayor of Gimli he was even worse, making sure him and his cronies lined their pockets with local contracts and benefited from his position. In some ways, he was like Snorri – but he used his silver tongue to get his way, making people laugh, playing the buffoon, while he worked his way up the ladder. He was gunning for State Governor – plain as day – but for now, Gimli was his personal fiefdom. Running the department store hadn’t been enough for him. He was always hungry for more. Snorri suspected many of his appetites were on the wrong side of the law, but he didn’t want to poke that hornet’s nest!

With the freak winter all bets were off. Everyone’s priorities shifted to core needs. Survival. Though it didn’t have to be just the fittest who survived. More than ever we need to look out for each other, Snorri thought.

He came to the house of the local priest and saw a lonely light burning in the front room. Reverend Viktor Olafsson was an old chess-playing friend of Snorri’s, and so he called by. His friend was clearly ‘well lubricated’, even though it was not even midday. ‘Snorri! Come in! Come in!’

Olafsson flopped down heavily in his armchair. ‘Help yourself, old friend…’ the priest waved to the drinks table. ‘I’m afraid I’m not really in a state to play a game today…’ He picked up his tumbler. ‘Here’s mud in your eye,’ he toasted, swooshing the contents round his mouth, before swallowing it. ‘Ahh.’

‘Are you eating anything, Viktor?’

`Oh, peanuts … pretzels … There’s stuff in the cupboards, but I really can’t find the time …’

‘You’ve got to eat well in this weather, friend. And you need something to soak up the drink…’

‘You sound like my housekeeper… Always nagging me. I’ve told her she needs to look after her own. The journey is worth it. Nobody is going anywhere. Certainly nobody is coming to church… You know how many people I’ve gave my sermon to on Sunday? Three! And one of those was the organist!’

‘Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to get anywhere at the moment. Unless you have skis or a snowmobile, well, forget it.’

‘Not everybody is as nimble as you! I don’t know how you manage it, doing your crazy running! Anybody think you sold your soul to the Devil for a good pair of legs.’

‘Not quite. But here … have one of my rabbits. Make some broth.’

The priest accepted the gift, stroking the limp body like it was a pet. ‘Thank you.’

Snorri tried to work out what the strange sound was a realised Olafsson was crying. He got up and, awkwardly, put his arms round his old friend.

‘It’s all so … fucking pointless,’ spat the priest, snot and tears running down his face.

‘Here,’ Snorri offered his friend a tissue. He waited for Olafsson to compose himself. ‘Don’t give up, my friend. You know I’ve never been one of the faithful, but I do believe we all need stories to get us through this. We need something to believe in.’

‘That’s the problem… I’m not sure if I do any more.’ Olafsson stared at the facets of his tumbler. ‘All the people suffering … dying … because of this infernal winter. How can a God justify that? How can I explain it to my flock, when I don’t have an explanation for it? It feels like the light of the Father has left us. His children so appalled Him, He has decided to forsake us. It’s no less then we deserve.’

Snorri gave him a hard look. ‘You’re just experiencing the belly of the whale, my friend.’

‘I’m not alone in there! Welcome to Leviathan! Population eight billion and counting!’

‘Here, let me share a story…’ offered Snorri.

The priest shrugged. ‘Why not? Got time to kill. S’plenty of time at the end of time,’ he slurred.

Snorri frowned with concern, but took a deep breath and plunged in. ‘Once they was a hill that ate people. That’s right, a hill with one hell of an appetite. Rabbit’s grandma told him to stay away from it! “Don’t go near that hill, grandson – it has a mean cussedness to it. Will eat you soon as look at you! Even when it’s not peckish!” But Rabbit had a contrary nature. The more he was warned not to do something, the more he wanted to. And so he found himself nibbling closer and closer to that mean old hill and its cave-like crack of its mouth. He knew the name of that hill and feeling mischievous Rabbit called out: “Hey! Pahe-Wathahuni, open that big flap of your’s and eat me if you dare!” But the hill knew Rabbit and his tricks and so ignored him, pretending to sleep. But when a hunting party of two-leggeds came close Pahe-Wathahuni opened his big wide maw and swallowed them whole. Acting fast, Rabbit dashed in behind them just before the mouth closed. Rabbit burrowed deep into the hill’s belly, but this tickled the monster mound, who coughed him up like a hairball. Finding himself back outside, Rabbit waited and another hunting party came along. The same thing happened – the hunters were gobbled up whole – but this time Rabbit, disguised as a two-legged, went in with them. He slid all the way down into the bowels of the hill. There, entangled in the monster’s guts, were the bones of those that had been devoured, and the bodies of those half-digested, and some that were still alive. And then there was a gigantic juicy heart. “What a juicy heart!” called out Rabbit to Pahe-Wathahuni, who was surprised and disconcerted to hear the voice within him! “Why don’t you eat it?” cried Rabbit. “It looks so tasty!” Rabbit took his good hunting knife and went as if to eat it himself. The hill, feeling ‘something that he ate’ was violently disagreeing with him, set to howling. This didn’t stop Rabbit slicing the heart in two – chop! The hill shuddered and split asunder. All the folk still alive within its belly were disgorged and, boy, were they glad to see the blue sky again! They hailed Rabbit as their deliverer, for he had cut Pahe-Wathahuni’s heart in two! The two-legged wanted to make Rabbit chief, but he declined, saying all he wanted was the big heap of blubber and guts left by the dead hill – this would feed him and his grandmother for a very long time. And so he carried the whole lot back to his lodge, and sure enough, they had good eating for many moons after. The end.’

The priest was snoring loudly by this point. Snorri sighed and gently took the tumbler from his hand and placed it on the table. Bidding his friend a quiet goodbye, he put his kit back on and set off, once more, into the snow.

He only had five rabbits left now. Snorri figured he probably wouldn’t have any left by the time he got home, but that would okay. He had plenty of dried and tinned food, and his neighbours mattered more. They were ravenous for story, even if they fell asleep at the first taste! Stories were the best rabbit broth. But as he pushed on through the frozen town, Snorri realised he had to come up with a new story for its population – one they were all writing day-by-day: How the town of Gimli survived the Great Winter.

***

Extract of Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

NEXT CHAPTER

Legs of Man

Steam Packet Company provides update on refunds after 2020 Isle of Man TT  Races cancelled due to coronavirus crisis | Belfast News Letter

@POTUS47

3.43am

THIS VOLCANO THING IS RUINING MY GOLF COURSES IN LEPRECORN-LAND. SOMEBODY NEEDS TO FIX IT PDQ!

3.55am

I WOULDN’T PUT IT PAST THOSE SMURF-FUCKERS TO HAVE TRIGGERED IT ON PURPOSE. NOBODY CLOSES DOWN OUR AIRSPACE! NOBODY!

3.58am

I ONCE STAYED IN REKVIK. BAD MISTAKE!!! THEY SERVE YOU ROTTEN SHARK MEAT, FOR FUX-SAKE!!! DARK AGE RETARDS!!! STILL, I MET THIS STUNNER THERE, A 5 (DON’T TELL THE 1ST LADY) ;0) BOY COULD SHE RAISE THE GEEZER. DFGERG.

Chapter 4: Legs of Man

As the ramp slammed into place, the bikers queuing up warmed up their engines. The main bay of the ferry was almost entirely taken over by the riders, and, as Eddy noted, they weren’t the shiny weekend biker types. And there was a notable lack of the ubiquitous Adventure guys on their copycat GPS’, or the sports bike brigade in their garish leather jumpsuits. These were the grungier kind of biker – the notorious outlaw ‘one per cent’ – all on growling beasts of black and chrome: hogs or Victories or some Triumph Rockets. Many were marque-less, customised beyond recognition. And the riders wore their patches proudly on denim cut-offs over leathers. The Wild Hunt and the Devils Hogs seemed to be the most common. They queued up on opposite sides of the deck, an uneasy truce between them. The tension on the ferry had been palpable. A few fights had broken out on the bar. Chairs and tables had been smashed up. A bar ransacked before they’d been able to pull down the shutters. At least one person had been thrown overboard. Some seemed to be delighting in the ‘good times’. Eddy kept a low profile, watching warily from a corner.

And now here he was, on his Ducati, sticking out like a sore thumb. He filed into line, taking his place in the pack – right at the back. He didn’t want to get in the way of these guys, the inevitable burn up as soon as the all clear siren blasted.

He was here with one purpose alone – to find Fenja. He just needed to keep his head down. Not get into a fight. He was all too aware though, having been to biker rumbles in the States, how easy it was to find your self on the wrong end of a fist, especially if you were prowling the bars, scanning the biker women. Just looking in the wrong direction was enough to get yourself glassed or worse. Bikers were often cavemen like in their manners, but even more so when it came to their women – fiercely territorial, ready to violence, to defend their mate against a rival, yet all too keen to parade their trophy in front of everyone, happy for them to prance around in leather bikini tops and micro-shorts, take part in wet t-shirt contests, and egg them on into bitch-fights. No wonder so many of their pillion squeezes end up joining all-female biker gangs.

The siren sounded and there was a mighty roar from the collective engines. And the torrent of bikers broke onto the quayside of the island like a black wave.

Eddy was one of the last to exit, following the pack at a safe distance.

So, here he was. The legendary Isle of Man, home of the TT – biker Mecca for millions. Yet it was no Tourist Trophy that had brought all these petrol heads to the island this time. It was ‘the Gathering’. Word had gone out and bikers had come from all over Europe. It was already being talked about as the biggest biker rumble in history.

 As Eddy rode out along the promenade, he could believe it.

The seafront of Man’s capital had clearly seen better days. It had an old-fashioned air about it. The horse-drawn trams (made nervous by the bikes), retro amusement arcades, white painted phone boxes, and faded glory of it all hinted at a heyday long passed. The waves of visitors had receded to foreign shores, drawn away by cheap flights and fairer weather. It clearly tried to make the most of its vintage ambience, but felt more like a jilted bride stuck in her threadbare wedding dress, clutching a bouquet of wilted flowers.

Yet in the sharp light of the new day it took on a different aspect, taken over by the hordes of bikers. In front of the crumbling guest houses row upon row of gleaming bikes lined up. Gangs of one-percenters cruised up and down the main drag, pulling wheelies, or buzzing pedestrians. Seagulls squawked angrily, but for once their racket was drowned out by the rumble of engines. The air reeked of petrol, hot pipes, rubber, and pungent leather. It was like riding into the encampment of a medieval army, freshly landed and preparing itself for the invasion of the interior. Ellen Vannin was about to be ravished.

Is this the way the world ends, Eddy ruminated. Not with a bang, but with a rumble?

He’d never seen so many bikers together. Sure, he’d seen plenty of photographs and footage of Chapter rallies, but little of that kind of thing happened north of the border. Gimli, Manitoba was not known for its bikers. Eddy was a bit of a black swan there, but even more so here. He was never more aware of his redskin amid so many white males. Under his helmet he was still anonymous. One of ‘them’, of the two-wheeled genus, Homo Automatous, if not a specific sub-species identifiable by patch.

Nervously, he cruised past the rows of ‘Devils Hogs’ – riders sporting swastikas and iron crosses on their jackets and open face-helmets. Many sporting similar on their shaven heads. Wearing the standard chopper shades, faces bristling with metal, he felt their dark gaze as he passed by on his incongruous Ducati.  Without a club he was vulnerable. Fresh meat. Eddy had never been a joiner, but he could see the merits of being patched up in a place like this. If a member is attacked, then the attacker has to deal with the rest of the club. This ‘NATO’-like rule (‘all on one and one on all’, as the Angels put it) prevented all out war breaking out, most of the time – although that didn’t prevented the long-running blood-feud of some gangs, most notoriously the Hells Angels and the Outlaws.

Here it felt like the tension was ready to spill over at any minute. The air was thick with it, just like the dark clouds gathering over Snaefell. For now, the silver blades of sunlight kept ripping through the high thin gauze of cloud over the coast. There was a crackle of energy in the atmosphere, fuelled by petrol and testosterone and it was exhilarating.

Beyond the Devils Hogs, who had claimed the first main stretch of promenade, Eddy was relieved to see other, less obviously xenophobic, bikers. There was a formidable looking female biker gang, sporting ‘Valkyrie’ patches. Eddy’s heart leapt in hope, but as he scanned them he realised his mistake. Some of them looked even more dangerous than the Hogs, and Eddy felt the sobering sensation of feeling vulnerable as a man, as their glares warded him off. They had staked their pitch, claimed their bars and hotels, and abandon all hope, any man who dared to enter. If Fenja was with that lot, he didn’t stand a chance.

Eddy’s stomach growled and he could murder a coffee, feeling sluggish after the early crossing. He scanned the front for a spot to pull in by a decent looking café, but nowhere looked particularly safe. He would just have to take his chances.

Spotting an obviously popular ‘greasy spoon’ type diner, he backed his Ducati in between the ranks. Boldness was the key. Look like you’re meant to be there. He killed the engine and dismounted, trying to maintain a confident swagger – hard, when he was a feeling a bit spaced out from long hours on the road, lack of sleep, and sustenance.

He locked his helmet to his handlebars, and donned his shades, and went to queue up. The smell of coffee was good; the waft of cooking even better; and he started to consider the menu items.

‘Hey, ass-wipe, out of the way!’

Eddy turned to see one of the Nazi bikers growling at him, clenching his fist. His face was mask of metal and ink – his eyes burning with hostility, filed teeth bared.

‘Hey, no problem man. I didn’t realise you were in the queue.’

The shark pressed his face towards Eddy. ‘I am now, and you’re in my way!’

The crowd immediately around them started to circle, sensing a fight. A bunch of the Devils Hogs circled behind Eddy, cutting off any retreat. It was a no-win situation and he wasn’t feeling suicidal. He had other priorities than getting to Valhalla today. He lifted up his arms.            ‘Sure, go ahead. My mistake.’

‘Being born was your mistake!’ hissed the shark, before head-butting him.

Eddy’s nose exploded and there was a blur of fists and boots as he was laid into before he was able to react and defend himself.

Suddenly, the reality of what was happening to him kicked in, painfully, and adrenalin started to surge through his veins. He fended off a blow, and managed to regain an upright posture, squaring off to the attacker.

‘Ahh, look, he’s trying to play. Out of your depth here, kiddo! Striking a Devil’s Hog. You’ve just signed your death warrant.’ The shark man raised a spike ringed fist, ready to land another blow. His comrades closed in around Eddy, ready to do this same.

Suddenly a tall, red-headed figure burst into the circle in a drunken manner, falling on his face. He picked himself up and dusted himself down. ‘There you are, you big red eejit!’ He grabbed Eddy by the bloody collar, holding back shark-man with his other hand. ‘Jeezus, sorry to break up the party here, fellas. This prospect shite is one of ours.’

The Devil Hog members scanned the patch on the Irishman’s back.

‘That’s roight, Banshees. No messing with the Fenians. We’re practically on home turf here and there’s an awful lot of us here. And we’ve been on the Jamesons all night. A little dust-up would set us up grand for a fry up.’

The shark man spat on the floor at Eddy’s feet. ‘I won’t forget you, Redskin…’ He jabbed two fingers towards his own pinprick eyes, then at Eddy, before nodding to his mates, and slipping back into the crowd.

The Irishman gave Eddy a wink. ‘I think you owe me a fry-up.’

Eddy spat a gobbet of blood. ‘I think you’re right. Thanks.’ He held out a hand. ‘Eddy Redcrow.’

‘Daniel O’Donnell.’

Eddy raised an eyebrow.

‘Nah, only shiteing ya. Mikey Heffernan at your service. Most folks call me Bog. Don’t ask why. I like a scrap as much as the next mad Irish bastard – and there are plenty of them here. But I like fair odds. Now, is that bacon I can smell?’

‘Now, let’s get this straight,’ said Bog, as he licked his fingers. The remains of the breakfast lay scattered around him. The man had a mighty appetite, that was for sure. ‘You met this Nordic bird escaping the Euro-clusterfuck. You gave her a lift; she gave you the horn. You had a flight home, but decided to come here and try to find her.  A single biker-lass on an island of about a million and counting…’

Eddy took another slurp of coffee, wincing at the pain in his mouth. That shark-bastard had loosened one of his teeth.

‘Here, this’ll help.’ Bog produced a hipflask and poured some of its contents in his mug, before taking a long sip himself. ‘Ahh, top of the morning to you! Here’s to the wild lasses that laugh as they break our hearts…’ And he burst tunelessly into song:

‘There’s nought but care on every hand, in every hour that passes oh,

What signifies the life of man, and tw’ere nae for the lassies oh.

Green grow the rushes oh, green grow the rushes oh-oh

The sweetest hours that ere I spent, I spent among the lasses-oh.’

Eddy laughed, winced, and sighed. ‘When you put it like that, it sounds daft, I know. But …’

‘You’ve never met anyone like her in your life, she’s the rosiest of roses…?’ Bog’s eyes twinkled. ‘Ah, only joshing ye, Red. I know the feeling all too well. It was the rose of Galway that did it for me… Mother Mary, she had thorns!’

Eddy was lost in his own fond memory. ‘There was something about her… She had a … magic about her. Made the pumps flow…’

‘Well, I never heard it put like that before!’ Bog chuckled. ‘But seriously, what does she look like. I’ll definitely keep my peepers peeled. Nothing better than eyeing up the lasses. Could watch them all day…’

‘Tall, blonde, slim, kick-ass. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.’

‘Sounds like you need her as your bodyguard, fella. You need to watch your red arse around here. There are some folks who are none to friendly to anyone looking ‘different’.’

Eddy rolled his eyes, ‘I’ve noticed.’ He took another swig.

‘Bloody ironic, though, isn’t it, when half of bloody Europe is here. It’s like fekkin’ Eurovision out there.’

They both watched the motley array of bikers cruising up and down, the diverse reg plates, and flag patches.

‘Seriously though, get yourself patched up before you get yourself killed.’

‘I’ve never been much of a joiner.’

Bog seized his wrist. ‘Now’s the time to fekkin’ start. The chips are down, my friend. I’ve got an awful feeling that this muvva volcano shit is just the start. Who your tribe is, who’s got your back, is going to be difference between life and death. Mark my words.’ Bog raised his flask and emptied its contents, smacking his lips.

Eddy brooded on this. He’d never felt part of a tribe, even his own back home. Being a breed made it hard to fit in anywhere, to truly belong. He was always the outsider. Not quite fully First Nation, not quite fully Icelandic. He knew he had Nordic ancestry, yet half of Gimli boasted ‘Viking blood’. Was it such a bad thing?

Bog stood up, somewhat unsteadily. ‘Hey, listen up. I like yous, fella. Don’t get yourself killed, but get your red arse to Peel. That’s where the Nordic bikers are heading, I’ve heard. Plus the Ruskies, the Poles. All those loonies.’

‘Where?’

‘Far southwest of the island. Big castle overlooking the beach. Can’t fecking miss it. They’ll all be camped out there, making offerings to Odin, all that shit. If you’re gal is anywhere, it’ll be there. Sounds like her crew.’

‘Cheers, Bog.’

‘Go easy. See you around, I hope.’

The Irishman staggered off, and though he bumped into a couple of customers, he was tall enough for them to think twice at taking on an Irishman loosened by alcohol.

Eddy finished his coffee. ‘To Peel, then.’

***

Thunder Road – coming soon …

Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

NEXT CHAPTER

The Choice

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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?’

She nodded.

‘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…’

Fenja shrugged.

‘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.’

‘Good.’

‘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.

‘Pity it’s closed. It’s gone five. C’mon, let’s go.’

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.

‘Yes, ma’am!’

‘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.

‘Sizzers, hi!’

‘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.

‘I’m fine…’

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.

‘Screw it.’

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.

***

Thunder Road – coming soon…

Extract of Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

NEXT CHAPTER

Terminal

Chaos at French port as Briton packs WW2 bombshells in his bag

PATRIOT NEWS

Climate Change is Fake News

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…’

They laughed.

‘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.’

‘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 what?’

‘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.’

‘Why?’

‘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.’

‘Ireland?’

‘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.’

‘Oh.’

‘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.

‘No!’

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.’

‘Sshhh! Rest.’

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.’

***

Thunder Road – coming soon…

Extract from Thunder Road copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

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