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Harry sipped his latest beer as more news updates flashed up on the pub’s dusty television. A female reporter, enveloped by a bulbous pink ski-jacket and covered in snow, began her report. “Good evening,” she said, a shiver in her voice. “I’m Jane Hamilton with Midland-UK News. As you can clearly see, the nineteen-inches of snow Britain has witnessed in the last forty-eight hours has left the nation’s transportation networks in disarray.”
The camera panned to overlook a deserted motorway. A sky-blue transit van lay overturned and abandoned in its centre; its mystery cargo strewn across, and half-buried by, the snow.
The reporter let out a breath, which steamed in the air, and then continued. “Major roads are closed and rail services have been terminated until further notice. Schools and many business are temporarily suspended, while hospitals and other vital services are doing their best to remain open. The current death toll has reached twenty-seven and is feared to rise. Emergency services have set up a helpline in order to assist those in most need, and to offer advice on how best to survive the current freezing temperatures. That number is being displayed at the bottom of the screen now.”
Harry shook his head. He was never one for fretting about bad weather. The freeze had come suddenly and would leave the same way.
“Even more concerning,” the reporter continued, “is the fact that it is currently snowing throughout numerous other areas of the world.” A multi-coloured map of the earth superimposed itself at the top-right of the screen and then slowly turned white, representing the recent snowfall. “From barren deserts to areas of dense rainforest, all have been subjected to unprecedented cold spikes. Never before in recorded history has such a wide-spread cold weather system been known to become so widespread. Certain religious leaders are calling this-”
“Rubbish!” Old Graham, the oldest regular of The Trumpet and resident of the one-bedroom flat above the pub, threw his hands up in disgust. “A little snow and the country falls apart. Every time. It’s a shambles.”
Harry lifted his head away from his half-finished pint and glanced over at Old Graham. The grumbling pensioner was pointing to the television screen.
Harry shrugged his shoulders. “No need to get wound up about it.”
Old Graham huffed and pouted toothlessly. “Your generation can’t cope with anything unless there’s a video on that Your Tube or My Face to tell you about it.”
Harry glanced at the television. Scenes of heavy snowfall. Locations from around the globe had become half-buried in blankets of slush and snow. The Pyramids of Giza, ice-capped like Himalayan Mountains; the canals of Venice frozen over like elaborate ice rinks; and Big Ben rising above a snow-covered Westminster like a giant stalagmite.
The television began flickering with interference.
Harry returned his gaze to Old Graham. “I agree it’s much ado about nothing. People just enjoy a good panic from time to time. No point in letting it bother you.”
The old man huffed again, the sound was wet and wheezy. “You think Canada, Norway, Switzerland are panicking about the snow? This is a heat wave to a bloody Eskimo! All this climate-change, ozone-layer hogwash they’re harping on about is just to scare us, you mark my words, lad.”
Harry thought about it. According to the news, it was categorically denied that climate-change could cause such unprecedented weather. The various meteorologists and talking heads all maintained that the snow was being caused by something else.
Harry swallowed another mouthful of crisp lager and kept his attention on the flickering television screen. Old Graham continued to gawp at him. Eventually the pensioner’s persistent staring irked Harry into speaking again. “Bet everything will be back to normal this time next week, huh, Graham?”
“You bet your balls it will.” He slid along the bar towards Harry, arthritic knees clicking with every step. “I’ve lived through worse times than this, lad!”
“Yeah,” he said. “I used to be married.” With that, Old Graham howled with laughter, until his worn vocal cords seized up in complaint and caused him to hack yellow-green phlegm bubbles over the bar. “Best go shift the crap off me chest, lad,” were his parting words before he tottered off toward the pub’s toilets.
Harry shook his head and turned to face the opposite side of the bar. Steph, the pub’s only barmaid, was smiling at him while clutching a cardboard box of Malt ‘N’ Salt crisps against her chest. She placed the box down on the bar and pulled an old dishrag from the waistband of her jeans. She wiped down the area where Old Graham had coughed. “He bothering you again, Harry?”
Harry ran a hand through his hair, threading his fingers through the knots and trying to neaten the scruffiness. He sighed. “Graham’s okay. Just had too much to drink.”
Steph snorted. “You’re one to talk. What time did you get here today?”
“Exactly, and it’s now…” She glanced at her watch. “Nine in the evening.”
Harry blushed. “At least I have the decency to pass out when I’m drunk, instead of talking people’s heads off like Old Graham.”
Steph rolled her eyes and smirked. “I’ll give you that, but I’d like to remind you that you left a puke stain on my knee-highs on Sunday. I had to throw them out”
Harry stared down at the hissing liquid in his glass and, for a split-second, felt ashamed enough that he contemplated not drinking it and going home instead. Instead, he downed what was left of it, dregs and all. “I must have been a pathetic sight,” he admitted.
Steph shrugged. “You’re not pathetic, Harry. Just a bit tragic. Things will look up for you one day, but you got to get a hold of yourself. I know life’s been pretty damn shitty to you, but you only turned forty a couple months ago, right? Plenty of time to get back on your feet and start a new life.” She stopped and looked over at the large plate-glass window that lined one side of the pub. “As long as this wretched snow don’t freeze us all to death first, you’ll be fine. You just gotta get a grip.”
“You really think so?” he asked her with a sigh.
“You better hope so, matey, because I’m not putting up with you spewing on me again. Don’t matter how handsome you are!”
They both chuckled and Harry felt his mood lighten a little. It wasn’t often he heard such things from a younger woman. Not when the mirror showed him a man that looked closer to fifty than his actual age. Grief had been hard on his face.
Harry pushed his empty pint towards Steph and she refilled it diligently. The overflow from the glass slid down over the black Foo Fighters tattoo on her wrist and made her pale skin glisten. Harry was ashamed to feel a stirring in his loins as he looked at her.
Harry’s wife, Julie, had been gone a long time now, but he never stopped considering himself a husband. Never once forgot his vow to love her forever.
Harry moved away from the bar, and away from Steph. The tattered padding of the bar stool he’d occupied for the last several hours had sent his backside numb and he craved the relief of a cushion. He headed towards the bench by the pub’s front window. At the same time, Old Graham returned from the toilets. There was a small urine stain on the pensioner’s crotch and Harry was relieved when the old man headed back to the bar instead of coming over to join him.
Harry eased down onto the worn bench and sighed pleasurably. He placed his pint down on the chipped wooden table in front of him and picked up the nearest beer mat. There was a picture of a crown on it, along with the slogan: Crown Ales, fit for kings. Without pause, Harry began to peel the printed face away from the cardboard. It was a habit Steph was always scolding him for, but for some reason it seemed to halt his thoughts for a while and kept back some of the demons in his head.
Relaxing further into the creaking backrest, Harry observed the room he knew so well. The lounge area of The Trumpet was long and slender, with a grimy pair of piss-soaked toilets stinking up an exit corridor at one end and a stone fireplace crisping the air at the other. A dilapidated oak-wood bar took up the centre of the pub, probably older than he was. Several rickety tables and faded patterned chairs made up the rest of the floor space.
In the pub’s backroom, a small, seldom-used dance floor collected dust. Harry had only seen it once, at New Year’s.
The Trumpet was a quiet, rundown pub in a quiet, rundown housing estate – both welcoming and threatening at the same time. Much like the people that drank there.
Tonight the pub was low on drinkers, as it typically was on a Tuesday. Harry wasn’t a big fan of company and preferred the quiet nights. Of course it helped that the snow had confined most people to within a hundred yards of their homes, clogging the main roads with abandoned snowbound vehicles.
Somehow Steph had made it in, holding down the fort as she did most evenings. Harry often wondered why she needed all the overtime she worked. She seemed to enjoy her work, but it could’ve just been the barmaid’s code to be bubbly and polite at all times to all people. Maybe, deep down, Steph really counted each second until she could kick everybody’s drunken arses out. Whatever the truth, Steph was a good barmaid and she kept control of the place.
Even Damien Banks behaved on her watch. Weekdays were usually free of his slimy presence, but tonight was an unfortunate exception. The local thug was sat with his Rockports up on the armrest of the sofa beside the fire, iPhone fastened to his ear.
Harry had heard – from sources he no longer remembered – that the young thug pushed his gear on the local estate like some wannabe drug lord. No one in the pub liked Damien, not even his so called friends – or entourage as Old Graham would often call them in secret. Rumour had it that the shaven-headed bully once stomped a rival dealer into a coma, taunting the family afterwards by revelling in the grief he’d caused.
Harry shook his head in silent derision. He hated the way Damien lounged around like he owned the place.
There was one other person in the bar tonight. A greasy-haired hulk named Nigel. A lorry driver, from what Harry had gathered over time, the man spent a lot of time on the road. The poor guy would probably have to sleep in his cab tonight.
Just the five of them. Tuesday was a quiet night.
Harry pulled his right knee up onto the bench and peered out of the pub’s main window behind him. The Trumpet sat upon a hill overlooking a small row of dingy shops and a mini-supermarket with steel shutters over the windows. Steph once told Harry the pub just about survived on the wafer-thin profits brought in by the lunchtime traffic of the nearby factories, but if it were to rely on its evening drinkers alone, the place would have closed its doors long ago – even before the public smoking ban had come in and crippled local pubs across the land.
On a normal night, Harry could see the shops and supermarket from the pub’s window, but tonight his vision faltered at several feet, the view swallowed up by swirling snow. Thick condensation hugged the glass and made everything foggy. For all Harry knew, the darkness outside could have stretched on forever, engulfing the world in its clammy embrace and leaving the pub floating in an inky abyss. The image was unsettling. Like something from the Outer Limits TV show.
Snow continued to fall as it had done nonstop for the past day and night. Fat, sparkling wisps that passed through the velvet background of the night, making the gloom itself seem alive with movement. Harry shivered; the pub’s archaic heating inadequate in defeating the chill. Even the warmth of the fireplace was losing its battle against the encroaching freeze.
God only knows how I’ll manage the journey home tonight without any taxis running. Maybe Steph will let me bed down till morning? I hope so.
Harry reached for his pint and pulled it close, resting it on his thigh as he remained sideways on the bench. He traced a finger over his wedding ring and thought about the day Julie first placed it on his finger. He smiled and felt the warmth of nostalgia wash over him, but then his eyes fell upon the thick, jagged scar that ran across the back of that same hand and the joyful sensation evaporated. The old wound was shaped like a star and brought back memories far darker than Harry’s wedding day. It was something he dared not think about.
He took another swig of his beer and almost spat it out. In only two minutes since he’d last tasted it, the lager had gone utterly flat, as if something had literally drained the life from it. Before Harry could consider what that meant, a stranger entered the pub.
A second later, the lights went out.