Long ago in 1981, Fred Hoyle wrote a book called Ice - How the next ice age will come - and how we can prevent it. I remember the cover of a colour supplement featuring the book; the Houses of Parliament emerging from a snowy wasteland, with a solitary figure skiing. This image stayed with me until I wrote Ice Diaries about a London in the near future buried beneath twenty metres of snow. Back in 1981, few buildings would have been tall enough to emerge from snow that deep. How London has changed.
BLURB: It’s 2018 and Tori’s managing. London is under twenty metres of snow and almost everyone has died or left. With no long-term future, Tori needs to make the two-thousand-mile journey south to a warm climate.
One day she rescues a wounded stranger, a cage fighter from a tougher, meaner world. Morgan is on the run from the gang he used to work with. He’s disturbingly hot. And he has a snowmobile.
Here is the start of the book:
Morgan put one foot in front of the other, the snow crunching beneath his boots. One step at a time and he’d get there. A full moon shone blue and white on the undulating surface. Less than a mile away, City of London skyscrapers emerged from twenty metres of snow like the tombstones of a dead civilization. From a few of the nearer buildings thin smoke trailed through the clean air towards myriad stars glittering coldly above. He did not notice the beauty of the night; he had other preoccupations. Unless he reached the source of one of those wisps of smoke he would die.
Not far now, he could make it. The gash on his ribs gaped with every gasping breath, blood seeping. He battled pain, cold, thirst and exhaustion as if they were a tough opponent in the cage; keep fighting however much punishment you take, don’t admit the possibility of tapping out.
The weight of his backpack dragged him down. Its contents were no good to him any more. He shrugged the thing off and let it thump to the ground without a backward glance, staggered on for fifty metres then fell to his knees and began to crawl.
Monday, 30th April 2018 (Nina maintains I have got a day ahead so it’s Sunday 29th, but she is wrong).
Today no snow fell, the first time for months, and the sun shone in a brilliant blue sky. With luck there’ll be icicles, so much easier to melt than snow. Greg called, as he does most days, doing his rounds. He banged on the window, slid open the patio door and came in. I gave him a Mars bar. I once joked he runs a protection racket – we all got into the habit of giving him stuff when he arrived, because he seemed so helpless – and he took up the idea, though he interprets it his own way. He likes to think he protects us, checking up on our small community each day, carrying messages and doing a bit of trading. He put his bag on the kitchen counter and his gloves to warm over my wood-burning stove while he ate the Mars bar. The snow melted off his boots and pooled on the stone-effect tiles. I peered into the open top of his bag.
“What’s that you’ve got there, Greg?” He took out an A4 notebook, black with a scarlet spine, and handed it to me. I opened it. Crisp off-white pages, with faint blue lines and a margin at the top. I had a sudden fancy to start a diary. I made him an offer. “A tin of sardines?”
Greg concentrated, his big moon face serious. He’s got the hang of bartering now, and enjoys it. “It’s new almost, nothing written in it. There was only some numbers on the first page, and I tore them out. You’d never know. Two tins?”
“Hey, what about the Mars bar?”
“That’s for protection.”
“Okay. One tin of sardines and a bar of soap. Imperial Leather.” I’d come across eight bars the week before when I was working on my own, a lucky find.
“Soap?” He didn’t sound keen.
“Time you had a wash, Greg, you’re beginning to hum. Come round this evening and I’ll heat you up some water. I’ll lend you a towel. Can’t say fairer than that.”
He made up his mind. “Done.”
I fetched the sardines and soap and gave them to him. He held out his hand and we shook on the deal, in Greg’s view an essential part of the transaction. He turned to go, then thought of something.
“Paul says can you come over, because he thinks the baby’s nearly coming.”
* * *
Paul and Claire live not far from my place, in Shakespeare Tower in the Barbican, though in a blizzard it can take half an hour to get there from my flat. Bézier, where I live, is a lavish new block with a bulging glass façade like two half barrels, erstwhile home to rich City bankers. It overlooks Old Street roundabout – not that the roundabout is visible any more – but my flat is on the opposite side, facing south towards the City. The snow is so deep, you can’t see the street layouts, just the tops of the taller buildings, virtually all modern architecture. Most Victorian buildings are covered, apart from the odd church steeple or decorative tower (near me is a guy standing on a globe shading his eyes – he looks rather surprised). St Leonard’s lightning conductor sticks up, with a bit of the spire below, the sort of feature that would make travelling on a sledge with a windkite hazardous. If I had a sledge… Even the tallest trees are buried now. You can see clusters of City skyscrapers and cranes in the distance, and to the south east as far as Canary Wharf where the light no longer pulses to warn off aircraft. There are no aircraft. The London Eye is silhouetted on the horizon to the south west like the wheel of a giant’s bike; turn to the west, and the BT Tower looms, a high-tech totem pole.
Smoke trails rising from our fires are visible in the clear air. Similar threads in the far distance show we are not the only little group surviving in London. Sometimes I climb to the rooftop of Bézier and stare out at them, wondering who they are and how they are managing. Pretty much like us, I suppose. Snow laps the bottom of the balcony that runs outside my flat (I’m on the tenth floor) and I worry that next year I’ll have to move all my supplies to a higher apartment, which would be a lot of work, though the others would help.
I set off through the white landscape, so bright in the sunlight I put on my dark glasses. Complete silence; no birds, no cars, no people. Just the sound of my boots and the squeak of the snow. Perhaps I can persuade everyone we should target a sports shop and get us all pairs of cross-country skis…
I dropped on to the terrace on the ninth floor, went down the emergency stairs and up three flights. Unlike the rest of us, Paul and Claire made the decision to pick a flat well above the snow, on the assumption the level was likely to rise. This means a lot more lugging of stores and firewood on a daily basis; I think it’s easier to move up a storey when you have to. I can’t lock my flat, but this no longer matters. I knocked on their door. Paul let me in, looking harassed. The room felt hot after the cold outside and I hastened to take my coat off. The flats don’t have fireplaces any more than mine does, but Paul’s fixed up a Victorian range with the flue going out through a hole in the wall. He made the hole painstakingly with a cold chisel and hammer. He’s an architect, but not good with his hands. As a group, we’re over-educated and lacking practical skills, which matters more than it used to. Gemma stood behind him and smiled up at me, looking a little lost.
“Hi Gemma.” I got out a toy pony I’d been saving for this occasion and held it towards her. She let go of her father and took it. “This is for your collection.”
“What do you say, Gemma?” Paul said automatically.
“Hank you Tori.”
“Good girl. You go and play with it in the living room.” He led me towards the bedroom. “Thanks for coming.”
“When did it start?”
“Her waters broke last night, but nothing much happened till this morning.”
As soon as Claire got pregnant, Paul brought home all the books he could find in the Barbican library on pregnancy and childbirth, and has been reading up on the subject. I’m not sure this has helped. He now knows in great detail every possible thing that can go wrong. Armed only with a St John’s Ambulance course he took six years ago, he’s not equipped to cope if they do. Now I was there to sit with Claire he went off to make a cup of tea.
An elderly stove made the bedroom smell of paraffin. Claire was sitting up in bed, pale, her hair clinging damply to her forehead. She wore a thick sweater over a nightdress, socks and legwarmers. For a moment she looked pleased to see me, then she shut her eyes, her face scrunched up and a moan escaped her gritted teeth. She inhaled deeply and breathed out through her mouth. I sat by the bed, trying to look relaxed and confident. A positive attitude was all I had to offer. I know nothing about childbirth. I had chicken pox when my school showed the mother-giving-birth video; afterwards my friends told me about it in gruesome detail and I was quite relieved to have missed it. The sum total of my knowledge picked up elsewhere was:
● You have to push but only when you get the urge
● In African tribes they put charcoal on the child’s navel as it’s a natural antiseptic
● If you can’t get to hospital in time, you should sit up with your back against something and your legs apart
● You tie the umbilical cord in two places and cut between the threads with sterilized scissors (I suppose you should boil the thread too)
● It’s important to get all the afterbirth out
And I know there are breathing techniques which allegedly lessen the pain. Claire has been doing breathing exercises religiously for months with the help of a book Paul gave her. I’m sceptical about this except as a distraction, because if it worked then they’d tell you to breathe to combat the pain of a headache or a broken bone, and they don’t. If you have a headache or broken bone, you take aspirin, paracetamol or morphine because unlike breathing, they actually work. But I kept this opinion to myself.
“How are you feeling?”
She grasped my hand, her eyes wide. “Don’t ever have a child, Tori, it’s terrible.”
“Chance would be a fine thing. Fond though I am of Greg, he’s not quite –”
Understandably in the circumstances, Claire interrupted my comment about the desert that is my love life. “I didn’t realize, last time they gave me an epidural. What was I thinking? I must have been crazy. I thought a brother or sister would be nice for Gemma…”
I patted her hand. “So it will. It’ll be over in a few hours, then you’ll have a new baby and you’ll forget all about it. Probably decide to have six more.”
“Paul wanted to get Nina here. Can you imagine? I told him over my dead body.”
“Oh my God. Well, that’s something to be cheerful about.”
Nina is okay I suppose, but she has a view on every topic and expects you to agree. If you don’t, she assumes you haven’t understood her, and explains all over again, more slowly and in greater detail. Sometimes I want to brain her with a brick. I was really pleased when a bad back stopped her coming on our group forages, because without her, dividing the spoil takes no time at all, and it used to take the best part of an hour with Nina present being nitpicky. She’s the last person in the world you’d want to split a restaurant bill with – if there still were any restaurants. Me and the guys, Paul, Greg and Archie, have a swings and roundabouts approach to share-outs. So do Charlie and Sam.
Claire began another contraction. I glanced at my watch and wondered if I should time them – was it a good sign when they got more frequent? The pain must have been worse because she yelled. Afterwards I wiped her face with a flannel from the bedside table, feeling inadequate.
“Tori…supposing I can’t get the baby out?”
There were tears in her eyes. A stab of fear went through me – what an appalling way to die, and poor little Gemma would have to manage in this hostile new world without her mother. Women often died in childbirth before the invention of modern obstetrics; Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia, slowly and agonizingly over days…I spoke robustly.
“You’ll be fine. Loads of women do this every day – well, not the same women, obviously, different ones. But it can’t be that difficult. Anyway, they say it’s easier the second time, and you’ve been practising the breathing, and you’re healthy. Plus you’ve got me here, and I won’t let anything bad happen. Hey, I’m really good at boiling water…”
Claire smiled a scared smile and gripped my hand.
* * *
I wouldn’t want another day like that in a hurry. Far too terrifying, and it just went on and on. I am now entirely certain that if God exists, he is male; he could so easily have designed women better. I’d be in favour of laying eggs myself – small ones, about the size of quail eggs. But it was all right in the end. Soon after dusk Claire delivered a healthy baby boy. Paul and I dealt with the umbilical cord between us, and it was obvious even to the uninitiated – i.e. us – that the afterbirth was all there. We opened a bottle of wine and drank to the baby, shaky with relief and triumph. Claire had a cup of tea and couldn’t stop smiling and admiring their new son, her face radiant. They both kept thanking me, though I’d done hardly anything except turn up. A little later I said I must be going.
“Stay here tonight,” Paul said. “It’s dark outside.”
“There’s a full moon and no snow falling.” These days I always know what the phase of the moon is without looking.
“Let me see you home, then.”
“No, you stay with Claire and the children. I’ll be fine.”
* * *
The night was beautiful, in a slightly sinister way. Dark skyscrapers loomed on the horizon. Not a breath of wind; a sky of the deepest possible blue, an enormous moon and countless stars. Even the worst situation has some good, and seeing the Milky Way over London is a treat that never dims, even while it brings home to me the world I knew is gone forever.
The wine had made me feel cheerful in spite of my weariness, and I was happy for Claire and Paul. The trek home seemed to pass in a flash. I neared my balcony, looking forward to bed, and paused for a final look round. A few hundred yards away moonlight broke on the mounds of snow from our failed excavation on Old Street, the only disruption of the ubiquitous smoothness; beyond Bézier, candlelight from Greg’s window showed he was still up – he’d missed his wash, we’d have to reschedule. To the north a white carpet interrupted by tower blocks and the odd crane stretched to the horizon.
That’s when I saw something moving.
A long way away, dark against the expanse of white to the north a small shape crept, stopped, moved again. A person crawling on hands and knees, and not one of us, because we seldom go out at night, and when we do, we go to each other’s places. A crazy hope lit up my heart and made me shake all over.
It’s David, come to find me. Please God, let him be all right.
I hurried to my flat, stepped over the glass wall of the narrow balcony, through the patio door and into the dark interior to get my sheet of tough plastic. I climbed once more over the balcony railing and headed as fast as possible into the night towards the distant figure. A man for sure, I could see as I got nearer, inching agonizingly along, his strength almost gone. He had stopped moving by the time I reached him, and lay face down in the snow. I turned him on his side with trembling hands.
For a moment my disappointment was so great I wanted to lie down and howl and thump the snow with my fists. I took another look. This man was in his mid-twenties, with a short beard not much longer than stubble, taller than me, wearing dark padded trousers and a jacket with a fur-lined hood. I crouched beside him, fatigue replacing my former excitement.
“Hi, wake up.” Nothing. I shook him but he didn’t respond. I’d have to roll him on to the plastic. I’ve got a trailer made out of the top of a car roof box – we all have – for dragging supplies home, but the plastic sheet, originally used to wrap a double mattress and now with holes cut for handles, is useful for things I can’t lift over the box edge. I rolled him on to the middle of the plastic where he settled on his back. His eyes half opened and he muttered something inaudible.
I looked back along his tracks, and saw something dark in the distance. I went to fetch it – the bag was surprisingly heavy, I had to drag it – and dumped it on the plastic beside him. Getting going was hard, but once moving the plastic slid fairly easily over the surface in spite of the combined weight of the man and his belongings.
Back home, hot and sweating, I lumped the backpack over the railing on to the balcony (what on earth was in it?) and tried to lift him. I have crates there so it’s easier when I’m carrying stuff, but getting an inert man over was a different matter. I struggled and heaved. No chance. Having got him this far, I didn’t want him dying outside my window. I could have built ramps out of snow to drag him up and down the other side, but that would take as much time as the alternative option, fetching Greg – twenty minutes at least, and the man would get frostbite if he hadn’t already. I shouted in his face.
“Wake up! You’ve got to help, damn you. WAKE UP!” He didn’t. I took off my glove, pushed his hood out of the way and slapped his cheek a stinging blow. He grunted and his eyelids flickered. I went to slap him again and found my wrist trapped in an iron grasp. Furious eyes met mine. His voice was a snarl.
“Fine. Stay out here and die of hypothermia, then.”
He glanced around, still gripping me. “Where’s my bag?”
“On the balcony.”
He let go my wrist and after a moment pulled himself to his feet, hanging on to the edge of the railing, and stepped over painfully slowly as if he were in his eighties. I followed with my plastic, grabbed his bag, slid the door open and we both went in. I lit a tea light lantern. The stove had gone out, and the place was icy; most of the snow in the buckets round the walls still unmelted. Greg would have topped the stove up for me, if I’d thought to ask him. Sometimes I long for radiators and a timer and no smell of wood smoke in my hair. I was down to my last few sheets of newspaper for fire lighting. I glanced at the headline before scrunching the paper into a ball: PM sets out three point plan to halt spread of SIRCS above a photo of Boris Johnson looking sombre. I opened the stove door and dropped it inside, added kindling, wood, and a handful of coal, then lit the paper from the tea light so as not to waste a match.
The man had slumped on the stone-effect tiles and was leaning against the kitchen island, head down, face half hidden by straggling hair, pulling off his gloves with a visible effort. Irritation swept over me at finding myself lumbered with this uncouth man and his problems – my compassion appeared to have been all used up on Claire with none left over for this random stranger. I picked his gloves off the floor and hooked them over the stove. He was probably dehydrated, so I scooped him a glass of water out of the nearest bucket. He drank it in one go and I gave him another.
“Is there anything wrong with you?” This came out impatient rather than sympathetic. “You haven’t got frostbite?” The best treatment for that is body heat, which I was not going to volunteer, or warm water, and I didn’t want to use up my water on him; it’s a lot of work, melting enough snow for daily drinking and washing. And the stove was cold. I was tired and wanted to go to bed.
“I’m all right.”
He didn’t look all right. By the lantern’s dim glow I could see a dark red bruise on his left cheekbone, and his skin was ashen and sweaty in spite of the cold. He was clearly dead beat. But there were no white patches on his face, and his hands weren’t discoloured, swollen or blistered; assuming his feet were okay he had no frostbite.
“D’you want something to eat?”
“No, I want to sleep.”
“You’d better sleep on the sofa.” The opulent plum sofa that came with the flat would not be my choice of furniture, but there’s no denying it is large and comfortable. Also it’s leather, so easier to clean. It faces towards the stove and away from where my bed is, and is the warmest spot in the place when the stove’s going.
He struggled upright, picked up the rucksack, made it to the sofa and lay down as he was, eyes shut, one foot still on the floor, dead to the world. Reluctantly, I unlaced his wet boots and pulled them off, because the flat was freezing and boots can restrict blood flow, making frostbite more likely. He didn’t move while I did this. I got out two spare duvets and a couple of blankets and dropped them over him, and put a glass of water to hand on the coffee table. I didn’t much like the look of him, but at least he wasn’t in any state to pose a threat. I washed my hands and face and cleaned and flossed my teeth – in a world without dentists anyone with sense does this with religious zeal. I adjusted the stove’s air intake to last overnight, went to my bed corner and took off some of my clothes, and snuggled into my sleeping bag under the duvet.
* * *
I woke as it began to get light, thinking about Claire and the baby. Then I remembered the man and slipped out of bed to check on him. He’d turned on his side, facing inwards, and still slept, the duvet moving almost imperceptibly with his breathing. He must have taken his jacket off during the night, as it lay across the rucksack beside his boots. The water glass was now empty, and I refilled it.
I dressed in the privacy of my bed corner. The man didn’t stir as I raked out the stove, added fuel and put porridge to cook. Usually I dress by the stove. When I moved in, I dragged one bed into the living area and partitioned it off with neat stacks of firewood from floor to ceiling, so I only have to heat one room. The flat is seldom really warm, since a wood-burning stove needs constant feeding and when I’m off foraging I have to turn it right down so it doesn’t go out. More wood is stored against the walls; I’m paranoid about running out, and work hard to keep supplies high. I live in the spacious living room/kitchen, and keep the bedrooms and two of the three bathrooms for stores. I’ve stacked heavy stuff on my toilets – after the sewers froze rats came up through the pipes to basements and ground floor flats, and though I’m probably too high I’m not taking any chances.
I watered my spider plant and removed a few dead leaves. It’s an offshoot of Claire’s enormous one, and doing quite well. They are the only plants left in this part of London. Sam used to have some cacti, but they didn’t like the cold. Though there’s not much difference between a dead cactus and a live one, eventually she had to admit they had shuffled off this mortal coil and were now ex-cacti.
I’d planned to go foraging today. There’s this block of flats I found on my own, only the top floor above the snow, and I’m working my way down it, collecting everything of use – wood, paper, food, clothes, blankets. There are bodies, but not too many; I work fast in those rooms and avert my gaze, careful to shut the doors behind me to keep the rats out. The worst ones are where there are several people, huddling together, especially children. I try not to think about their last hours. I don’t worry about catching SIRCS, because I reckon I’ve got natural immunity or it would have killed me when the pandemic raged. Probably most of them died of cold, anyway. One flat had a fireplace, which got me excited, but apparently they relied on the radiators and the fire wasn’t often lit – there was only a single bag of coal, which I’m using up bit by bit for keeping the stove in at night. Wood burns much faster.
I decided to start my journal and simultaneously melt a load of snow to top up my water supplies, so I’d be around when the man woke. I could forage the next day.
* * *
Greg interrupted my writing mid-morning. I’ve started to worry too much chocolate will rot his teeth, so I gave him a musical snow globe from the flats. It was a particularly nice one. He wound the brass key carefully, shook the globe and set it down. We stared into the tiny perfect world; a village on a snowy hill, a church and snow-covered houses around a central Christmas tree. A miniature train ran on its track through tunnels while a cheerful tune tinkled and snowflakes swirled.
Greg was very taken with it, though you’d think he’d have had enough of snow. I certainly have. I said, “Imagine if we were tiny and lived there.”
“I wish we did.” Greg pointed. “I’d have that house, with the ivy. You could have the big one opposite. We could ride on the train.”
A snow globe and London have a lot in common these days; both are perpetually snowy and limited in scope. I put water to boil. Greg had already called on Paul and Claire and admired the new baby, and told me they’ve decided to call him Toby. Greg was in favour of calling him Bart (he was a great Simpsons fan, and misses them). I said the name wouldn’t suit him as his face wasn’t yellow. Greg said Bart Simpson probably wasn’t yellow in real life, just in the cartoons, then he noticed the man.
“There’s a man on your sofa, Tori.”
“I know. I found him in the snow last night and dragged him here. He’s been asleep ever since.”
“Is he staying?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he’s passing through, and will leave once he’s had a rest and some food.”
Greg walked across to the sofa. “He’s got blood on his jacket.”
I joined him. He was right – how did I miss that? A big dark patch on the quilted lining. We stood for a few seconds, gazing thoughtfully. Greg picked up the jacket for a closer look, and the man erupted from the bedding and pulled a knife on him. The sunlight flashed off a short business-like blade. He stared at us in turn, bloodshot eyes narrowed, breathing fast. He was bigger than I’d realized. His sweater was soaked in blood. We edged away.
After a moment, Greg bent forward and dropped the coat back where it came from. “Sorry.”
I suddenly felt annoyed. After all, I’d saved this person’s life. “There’s no need to act like an idiot. You’re making me wish I’d left you face down in the snow. Put that away.” Slowly, he clicked the knife closed and pocketed it, eyes still wary. “Is that your blood on you?” He nodded. “Are you hungry?” He nodded again. Clearly I was on my own with this conversation. I asked him something he couldn’t answer with a nod. “What’s your name?”
“It’s what Morgan, but Morgan will do.”
Greg screwed up his face. “What is a funny name.”
I said, “I don’t know, what about Wat Tyler? He was called Wat. The Peasants’ Revolt, 1381. He was stabbed by the Lord Mayor of London.”
“Claire could call the baby Wat.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Whenever people asked him his name, he’d say ‘Wat’ and they’d ask him again only louder.”
“They wouldn’t do that if he was called Bart.”
“Good point. Maybe you could use that argument to persuade Claire. Unless the baby’s already answering to Toby.”
Conversations with Greg often have a surreal quality I no longer notice. The stranger gazed from one of us to the other, frowning slightly, as if we had suddenly started talking in Ecclesiastical Latin. He felt in an inside pocket and held out a coin. “I can pay for food.”
I took it, curious. A Krugerrand, heavy in my hand. There’s an ounce of pure gold in a Krugerrand, but they aren’t beautiful coins. They could easily have made them much nicer, but their purpose was to make money from the global gold coin market so they didn’t bother.
“This is no good to me.” I handed it back. “We have a bartering system. Anyway, I wasn’t going to charge you for breakfast. Or for lugging you here, or letting you spend the night. You’ll just have to live with being in my debt for now.”
He gave me a long look. “All right.”
“Not at all, don’t mention it.” I turned away and scanned the rows of tins. “Scotch broth with corned beef?”
He nodded. While I opened the tins, they both sat on the sofa and Greg told him our names and about our little community, and asked him questions which Morgan answered without giving much away. Greg didn’t appear to notice his caginess.
“Where did you come from?”
“Up north. A fair way.”
“I slept on Tori’s sofa when I first came, too. Then everyone helped me to find things for my own place.”
Greg counted on his fingers. “Paul and Claire, they’ve just had a new baby, and they’ve got Gemma too. Then there’s Charlie and Sam, they’ve got a cat. The cat’s called Simone de Beauvoir, she’s black with one white foot, and sometimes she scratches you when you’re not expecting it, so I don’t stroke her in case she does. It’s because people weren’t nice to her when she was a kitten, Sam says.”
I scraped the contents of the tins into a saucepan and roughly chopped the corned beef with the spatula. I was never a great cook; now I’m a lousy one.
“I wanted a pet rat, but Nina said I’d get a disease. I still might get one, though. A rat, not a disease. You can train them. Tori says I don’t have to do what Nina tells me. She needn’t know I’d got a rat, it could stay in my pocket. They didn’t let you have pets at Wingfield Gardens. I can have whatever I like where I live now.”
Greg pointed through the window. “See the building with the blue bits on it? I’m at the bottom there. If I need Tori, only really badly though, not just to talk to or something like that, then if I hang my red blanket out of the window she’ll come over. And the same if she needs me. You could have a flat there too. Have you got a pet?”
“No. D’you have any petrol?”
“We don’t need it, we haven’t got any cars. They wouldn’t work on the snow.”
“You can use petrol for other things than cars. Generators, for instance.”
“We haven’t got a generator.”
I tipped the corned beef/broth into a dish and put it on the counter with a spoon and a glass of water. Morgan moved to a stool and ate, emptying the bowl in two minutes flat. Maybe I should have opened more tins. He looked up at me.
“Have you got any hydrogen peroxide? There’s a cut I probably should do something about.”
“I’ve got Dettol and bandages. Take off your top and let’s see.” I went to fetch my book of medical advice and the first aid box from the storeroom, had a thought and went back for my biggest sleep tee and sloppy sweater. He couldn’t go on wearing his blood-soaked clothes.
When I returned, Morgan was pulling a tee shirt over his head, displaying powerful shoulders and narrow waist, a black tribal tattoo across his upper back, and a couple of round dog tags on a chain. There was also a lot of blood, dried and oozing, and a gaping three inch knife slash on the left side of his ribs. Greg and I both did a quick intake of breath. I felt queasy.
“How did you get that?”
“In a fight.”
“Just some guy I annoyed.”
While Greg took up this topic without eliciting much in the way of concrete information, I opened Home First Aid.
Wash the cut with soap and water and keep it clean and dry … hydrogen peroxide and iodine can be used to clean the wound. Apply antibiotic ointment and keep the wound covered … change the dressing two or three times a day. Seek medical care within six hours if the wound needs stitches … any delay can increase the rate of wound infection.
I washed my hands and tipped hot water in a mixing bowl, added Dettol, opened a new sponge from its cellophane and a new bar of soap and sat on the stool beside Morgan. There was a lot of him, all of it muscle. Stupidly, I felt myself blushing. It was a year since I’d been this close to a man who wasn’t wearing at least three woolly layers of clothing. When I bent to examine the wound my head brushed his beard. I could smell his sweat and hair and blood. I busied myself cleaning the cut, then the area round the cut, guilt taking over from embarrassment. This should have been done last night. I’d known something was wrong but had been too tired to pursue it, and if he got an infection and died of blood poisoning it’d be my fault. He sat unflinching, though it must have hurt a lot. I got fresh water and washed the cut again, twice, dabbed it dry with tissues, applied Neosporin cream and looked at it dubiously.
“D’you want me to try to bring the edges together with plasters?”
“That might make it more likely to go bad. Leave it, just tape some lint over.”
“How do you feel?”
“I’ve felt better.”
“You should drink lots of water to flush out the germs. I’ve got a random collection of antibiotics, but I don’t know which ones would work for this. But we can try them if you get a fever.”
“Whatever. I’m going to sleep. Wake me for meals.”