Posting these chapters is quite fun, since I wrote this novel so long ago that I feel like I'm reading a lot of it for the first time. (Reminds me of one famously cheap writer-director of whom someone said, "Rewrite? He doesn't even re-read!".
In bed with a cold today. Thank goodness it's a bank holiday in Ireland. I hope you like the latest instalment.
The reference to the printing museum is a bit of a private joke. When I was a trainee in the Allen Library, in 2001, we visited the National Print Museum in Dublin twice-- once as a field trip, the second time as a two-day First Aid course which was being held there. The National Print Museum was staffed by trainees from the same government training scheme as the Allen Library, that's why the First Aid course was held there.
Maybe I'm lacking in scientific curiosity, but looking at old printing presses and associated exhibits seemed like pretty much the dullest occupation imaginable. I accept, and I even rejoice, that some people will find the technical history of printing fascinating; but it seems odd to me that anyone would consider it of general interest. The only thing that interested me was the huge banners that belonged to the old printers' trade unions.
As for the First Aid course, I was a wash-out. I couldn't tie a bandage despite a great deal of practice at home. I still passed, ridiculously. But what really strikes me about that First Aid course is that it's an example of a certain class of events which we all have in our lives; events that were prolonged and intensive enough to stick in your mind, but still only a passing interlude. It's a very strange feeling; when they end, you've invested so much into them that it seems wrong for them to pass without any ceremony; but they aren't sustained enough to actually make friends, or settle down into, or deserve a party or a dinner or a night out at the end of them. I remember the bright summer sunlight of the two days, and two of the trainees from the National Print Museum. They were both young men around my age-- young bucks, I might more appropriately say-- and I felt very envious of their boyish nonchalance. One was called Paschal, and he had a face that seemed to me to belong to the nineteenth century rather than the second (or, for pedants, the first) year of the twenty-first century.
Well, enough reminiscing, and more Snowman.
There were no birds in the sky. They could hardly have been seen or heard, anyway, with the maniac storm that had taken grip of Higginstown. Nobody in that chaos was concerned with anything except the next few feet, the next moment. All time and space had been contracted into this struggle to remain upright, to keep some kind of mastery over mind and body.
Perhaps, in essence, it was not really such an unusual situation.
And—again, perhaps not so unusually—all the striving of the bedraggled figures led to the same point, the same destination they would have reached if they hadn’t striven at all. Many people passed out, and those who never came to their senses again found themselves in exactly the same place as those who had clung to consciousness.
The place was Higginstown Comprehensive School, a grey pebble-dashed building that had stood for thirty years, unloved and unremarked upon. Unlike so many other schools, it had never had a nickname attached to it. Few of the teachers, even, had been rebaptised by their pupils. There were hardly any stories handed down through the generations of teenagers that had attended it. The headmaster was said to have been caught reading a blue magazine, ten years ago. One or two similar tales hung in the air, like a thin wreath of stale cigarette smoke. But, generally, folklore did not cling to the corridors of Higginstown Comp.
That schoolday had been something of a historic day for the school, though nobody had remarked on it. Fewer people turned up that day than on any schoolday in the schools’ history. Altogether, there were a hundred and twenty pupils present, from a rollcall of more than four hundred. Teachers, too, had decided to stay away. Most of the teachers lived many miles from Higginstown, and the radio had warned people not to take to the roads, after so many days of heavy snow.
Besides, many people were feeling decidedly strange. Work, school and the whole round of ordinary life seemed suddenly irrelevant. There were many, such as Brendan, who had witnessed bizarre events . Nearly everybody had heard troubling stories. For the past day or so, a mood of anticipation had taken hold of Higginstown. There was as much excitement in it as there was anxiety; it would have been impossible to untangle the two.
Paddy Collins, the headmaster of Higginstown Comprehensive—who had actually been seen holding a confiscated dirty magazine that day ten years ago, and not reading one— certainly felt it. He had not felt so alive since…well, he’d spent the whole morning trying to remember when he had last felt so alive. It came to him as he was flicking through some of his teachers’ suggestions for field trips (most of them stupid, he thought; who would want to see a printing museum?)
He had last felt like this since he was fourteen, when he had gone on his first (and last) camping trip. Back then, going into the mountains with other boys— and only a trio of adults—seemed like the scariest and most exhilirating prospect he could imagine. He felt like he was going to his own death and rebirth. In the end, there was death, though in a more literal sense. Brian Powell had become separated from the group, and died of hypothermia in the night. It had felt like a premonition fulfilled. And the horrible, furtive truth was that it did feel like rebirth, as if Brian’s death was the event that ushered in manhood for all the rest of them. They had become survivors.
There was a knock on the door. He recognised it from the pattern; one rap, then a pause, and two raps in quick succession. It was Debbie Baker, the P.E. teacher. They had been flirting for twelve years, although Debbie was married. Sometimes he thought they both enjoyed the challenge of keeping their flirtation secret; they seemed to have succeeded so far.
When she stepped into his office, though, she looked anything but flirtatious. Her rather gaunt face was tight with worry and vexation. He always thought she looked like a character from a low-budget science fiction show, in her black tracksuit and gelled-back hair. The frown that was on her face now only deepened the impression. She looked like she was about to give the order to fire all lasers.
But what she said was: “My class is becoming unmanageable.” She made it sound like a personal criticism of him. Their flirtation had never made him immune to her criticism; rather the reverse.
“Unmanageable?”, repeated Paddy, genuinely surprised. “I never thought I’d hear that from you.” Debbie was one of the school’s best disciplinarians.
“Well, what can I do?”, asked Debbie, folding her arms across her breasts. She was never especially pretty, except when she was smiling or angry. “If only I could hit the little buggers. But they know they’re immune. And you’re such a softly-softly man, they’re not afraid of anything anymore.”
Paddy had sometimes expressed sympathy for children coming from troubled backgrounds. This made him a milksop liberal, in Debbie’s view.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with me”, said Paddy, giving her the lopsided smile that he imagined (quite inaccurately) made her dizzy. “It’s this weird weather. It’s thrown everybody out of orbit”.
“Are you going to do something about it?”, asked Debbie, refusing to respond to his magic smile.
He looked down at the files on his desk, and sighed. He had been hoping for an easy day today. He wasn’t in the mood for work. He was never in the mood for work, but the today the idea seemed almost insupportable. But he rose from his desk, heavily.
“Lead me to them”, said Paddy. He was annoyed. These little brats were going to regret their friskiness. “What are they doing, anyway?”
“You name it”, said Debbie, as they moved down the corridor. The thick green carpet was full of wet footprints that would probably never come out. Carpets had been having a rough time recently. “They’re making obscene comments. One of them bared his bum at me. Being openly insolent. And they punctured a volleyball”
“Good lord”, said Paddy. “What year?”
“Sixth year”, said Debbie. “That little swine Hennessy is the ringleader. He’ll be in prison by the time he’s twenty. I fervently hope so, anyway.”
They were standing in a circle in the gym when the two teachers arrived. Paddy could sense the tension in the air. He could almost taste the emotion radiating from them; the same emotion that had been agitating him all morning. That heady blend of excitement and fear, like the distillation of adolescence. They were shuffling and staring like a pack of hounds about to fall into a massive dogfight. There were perhaps thirty altogether, both boys and girls.
“What’s going on here?”, asked Paddy, walking into the middle of the ring, and assuming his most pompous tones. There was no reply beyond a few giggles. He hadn’t expected one. Some of the more timid kids looked sick with worry, but defiance stared back at him from most of those bony faces.
“I’m not going to tolerate—“, he began, but he didn’t go any further, because at that moment something hard and heavy thumped against the back of his head.
He staggered forward, and only Debbie’s extended arm stopped him from falling over. Something between a gasp of horror and a shriek of laughter ran around the ring of kids. Tears stung Paddy’s eyes. A basketball bounced along the floor, having flown upwards after colliding with Paddy’s head, and landed seven or eight feet away.
He whipped around. Pain had turned to fury in a heartbeat. He saw the recognition of this in the kids’ eyes. With the instinct of schoolchildren, they understand they had pushed him too far.
Schoolteachers have their own instincts. Paddy scanned the faces of the kids around him. Straight away, he saw who had thrown the basketball. Every one of them was frightened, seeing his reaction, but fear was most vivid on the face of Stephen Burke, a snivelling, sly creature who all of the teachers detested. Most of the pupils detested him, too. He had a jaundiced, spindly look about him, and there was something more than a little weasel-like in his features. Now they were seized with panic.
The fear on his face only enraged Paddy further. He had a reputation as an even-tempered, fair-minded headmaster. The kids liked him, as far as affection was possible between schoolchildren and their principal. But twelve years of self-control were scorched away by a moment’s rage. He stepped forward and punched Stephen Burke full on the face.
The cry of shock from the class, and the sensation of the boy’s nose breaking underneath his fist, gave him an intoxicating pleasure.
Burke fell backwards, wailing, and blood showered from his smashed nose. The sight of him bouncing on the hard floor, the utter disbelief on his weasely face, only incited Paddy more. He stepped forward, already swinging his foot backwards for a kick. He was laughing. Now he was really excited.
But the kick never made contact. The punch had unleashed the brutish energies that were brewing amongst the kids, and three or four of the boys rushed forward to protect their classmate. Few of them liked Burke, but he wasn’t Burke anymore. He was a member of their pack.
Within a few moments, Paddy had been shouldered aside by one boy, so that his kick met nothing but air, while another was helping Burke to his feet. Other boys were shaping up to attack Paddy. The headmaster was already gearing up for another confrontation, too thrilled by the release of twelve years’ resentments to be touched by fear. But Debbie was getting ready to run for help, expecting him to be pulverised. Some of these boys were almost six foot, and were doubtless veterans of a hundred street-fights.
But the next moment, everybody stopped, as if a cold shower of sanity had fallen on them. Paddy stood with his two fists raised level his face, like a caricature of a boxer. There were at least half a dozen boys ringed around him, crouching into fighting positions. But they didn’t spring. They just stood there, peering into the headmaster’s eyes. With the instinct of brawlers, they realised that he was dangerously angry, but also that he was ready to walk away. They straightened out, and stepped backwards, almost in unison.
A silent sigh of relief and disappointment passed through the little crowd.
Paddy looked at Debbie, who seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the incident. Her eyes were shining, and she was looking at him with a mixture of astonishment and approval.
“Mrs. Baker”, he said, not even trying to assume his pompous headmasterly tone. “Can you go round the classes and tell everybody to go home?”
“What reason will I give?”, asked Debbie, after only a moment’s startled pause. The kids weren’t even grinning or looking excited, he noticed. They were simply staring at him. This was strange enough even to strangle the usual cheers and near-rapture of a schoolday cut short.
“Too few people in”, said Paddy, shrugging his shoulders. “The snow. Breakdown of discipline. Use your imagination.”
There was a nervous titter at this, but it was more nervous than amused. Paddy got the impression that these kids just wanted to get away from him. He was freaking them out, as they would doubtless put it.
He looked at Stephen Burke, who was massaging his nose. There was no rage on the boy’s weaselly features; there was nothing but terror. Paddy might as well have been holding a gun to the boy’s head. A spasm of contempt passed over the headmaster. He turned his back on the miserable boy, and walked out of the gym, back to his office.
He sat at his desk, and logged onto the school’s website. He spent perhaps ten minutes staring at his own picture—which occupied most of the screen, on the “Meet the Principal” page—and felt almost as much contempt for himself as he had felt for Burke. Look at me, he thought. The big cheese. Monarch of all I survey. Pillar of respectability. How did I end up like this? Thank God it’s over.
Every moment he expected a knock at the door, from one or other of the teachers. But it didn’t come. Perhaps forty minutes had passed before anyone came into the office. It was Debbie, and she didn’t knock. She had a tight, euphoric smile on her face.
“How is it going?”, asked Paddy, when he saw her. “I expected Mr. Calahan, at least—“
He didn’t get to say anymore than that, because Debbie had already closed the door, crossed to his desk, leaned over him, and begun to kiss him as though her sanity depended upon it.
Without breaking away from her, Paddy rose from his desk, and pushed her back towards the door. He pressed her against it, to block any more unannounced visitors, and for five minutes they hardly drew breath. Nobody had ever kissed Paddy as fiercely as this. Was this woman in love with him, after all?
He drew back for a moment, long enough to ask, “Do you want to go away with me?”
“No”, said Debbie, breathlessly, and resumed her kissing with doubled eagerness.
But within a moment or two, there was another knock at the door.
Debbie muttered one of her most vicious curses, but she sprang away from Paddy, pulled a seat towards his desk, and sank into it. Paddy found himself straightening his tie and collar, but stopped when he realised he was just mimicking what he’d seen on movies. He’d be checking for lipstick next. He drew breath, and opened the door.
He wasn’t surprised to see Calahan standing outside. He wasn’t surprised to see the barely-suppressed glee on Calahan’s face. Calahan had always considered himself unjustly passed over for the headmaster job, and Paddy had never been sure that he was wrong.
Paddy hated everything about Richard Calahan, his second-in-command. He hated his scraggly beard. He hated his lumberjack shirts. He hated the way he stood with his hand on his hips during school assemblies. He hated his environmentalist consciousness-raising. And he was well aware that his loathing was returned with interest.
“Is everything cool?”, asked Calahan. His voice oozed smugness.
“Everything is spiffing”, said Paddy, giving his vice-principal a cheesy grin. “Everything is groovy. I just thought there wasn’t much point in the kids hanging around. Not much of a vibe here today, is there?”
“I suppose not”, said Calahan, slowly, as if he was speaking to an idiot. “Are you feeling alright, Paddy? What’s this I hear about you hitting a child?”
“I’m feeling fine, Dick”, said Paddy. It pleased him to see a moment’s scowl on Calahan’s face. Just call me Richie, he always told new acquaintances. And every time he heard him say it, Paddy found himself gritting his teeth. “And I did hit somebody. Burke, as a matter of fact. It felt so good.”
They stood there gazing at each other, Calahan in his checked shirt and faded jeans, Paddy in his sleek grey suit. Their silence stretched to a minute at least. Calahan glanced past Paddy at Debbie at one point, but only for a moment, and without interest.
“Well, I’m going to take off, then, if you don’t need me for anything”, said Calahan, back to his smug smooth self. “Phone me if you need me, Paddy.” I always knew this was coming, said those steely grey eyes.
“I won’t need you”, said Paddy. And he pushed the door shut as soon as Calahan had stepped out of the office.
He looked back at Debbie. She hadn’t turned her head during the entire exchange. She was staring at the window; she couldn’t stare out, since the blind was drawn. He walked towards her and put his hands on her shoulders, but she shrugged them away.
“What are you going to do?”, she asked, still without turning around. There was no hint of passion in her voice now.
“You mean right now or with the rest of my life?”, asked Paddy. He didn’t feel in the slightest bit upset, or worried. He felt happy, and more excited than ever.
“Either or both”, said Debbie. Still without looking around.
“As for the rest of my life, I have no idea”, said Paddy. “As for right now, there’s a bottle of brandy that I keep in my desk drawer. What about you? Going home to David?”
“David is in Liverpool, to watch a soccer match”, said Debbie. “I don’t have any plans. I’ll get some glasses from the kitchen. And the whiskey I have in my locker. We’ll toast your resignation.”
There was no more kissing, but they sat in the office until late evening, drinking brandy mixed with cola from the kitchen, and topping it off with whiskey. They didn’t talk about Burke, or Calahan, or the snow, or the mysterious force that they could feel in their marrow all that day. They spoke about memories, movies, nursery rhymes and their first crushes. When the lights went off—as they went off all over Higginstown, that moment—they opened the blinds. There was still enough light to drink and talk by, although they almost had to shout to be heard above the rising storm.
They were still at it when the entire population of Higginstown joined them.
They didn’t come crashing through the windows, or smashing against the walls. The roaring winds stopped short of the school, in contempt of the laws of nature. Within a half an hour thousands of bodies—most of them still living, not all of them human—were scattered in a ring around Higginstown Comprehensive.
There was nobody to appreciate the weird grandeur of the sight. Those who were caught up in it were too overwhelmed with pain and shock, and the two teachers inside the buidling were helpless to work out what was happening. Heavy-witted with brandy and whiskey, and their view obscured by the snowstorm, they decided that an angry mob had descended upon the school, enraged by the headmaster’s actions that day. They rushed out of the office, with the quickly-formed plan of escaping out one of the fire exits.
A layer of debris lay over and under the layer of bodies. Roof slates, newspapers, traffic cones, bicycles and a thousand other props of everyday life had followed their owners to the centre of the tempest. They lay there, wrenched from their context, like the food and drink that ancient man buried with his dead.
By some miracle—but who in Higginstown could be surprised by the miraculous now?—no babies or infants perished in the upheavel. Most were shielded by the arms of parents, baby-sitters, even complete strangers. The youngest person to die in the chaos was exactly nineteen years old. She had been dragged from her own birthday party and was still wearing a pair of toy devil’s horns when her body came to rest on a hop-scotch course.
When the last arrival—a plumber’s apprentice called Wayne—had been propelled into the school grounds, the already cold night suddenly grew even colder. The stunned came to their senses, rapidly or sluggishly, shocked into alertness by the freezing air. Thousands of people rose to their feet within two or three minutes. Those who could not stand on their own were lifted to their feet by those around them. Not that any great surge of fellow-feeling had gripped the crowd; they had merely become a crowd, rather than a collection of individuals. Nobody sought out their friends, their spouses, even children; the only thought animating that huddle of bodies—more of an impulse than a thought, even—was that they needed to be inside. They moved towards shelter like a moth moves towards light. Soon there was a crush of humanity at the front door of the school; it was locked, but quickly kicked down.
The crowd, more than twelve thousand strong, streamed into the school. They did not notice that, though evening had fallen only a couple of hours before, dawn was already paling the sky above them. Dozens of dogs and cats followed the procession; nobody bothered to keep them out.
Few of them had ever felt any pleasure as intense as the sudden warmth flitering through their bodies. None of them wondered why it was so warm, when the heating should have disappeared along with the light. They simply revelled in it, like a thirsty dog lapping up water.
But already the memory of selfhood was returning to each person, and they began searching out loved ones and companions. The air of the school was filled with the crying of names, both panicked and joyous. Bodies brushed past each other, frustrated at every turn. Everywhere there was the wailing of children, separated from their families, bewildered by the situation they had been thrust into, and terrified that they would be suffocated or crushed in the chaos.
The pandemonium lasted for at least an hour. Most people found those they had been seeking in that time; some of them had to venture back outside, to the lacerating cold, to discover their loved ones already lying beneath an inches-thick grave of snow. They wept, and they howled, and they broke down; but somehow, the plan of dragging the dead to a storage shed in the grounds was hit upon, and followed with surprising rapidity. The cold left little grief time for grief. The dead—and, remarkably, there were hardly more than fifty—were stashed in a little space that was already crowded with display-stands, banners and props from school plays of years past, and placards illustrating the life-cycle of the frog.
They left them there, and returned to the living, who were already forming themselves into an organised body. They had gathered in the assembly hall where Paddy Collins had broken Stephen Burke’s nose hours before. There were more people jammed into the space, which was not cavernous, than the architects and builders had ever envisaged. Some of those present had to content themselves with looking from the the mouths of corridors. The school’s headmaster and P.E. teacher had joined them, unnoticed. One blast of the air outside had been enough for them to abandon their plan of escape, and they had soon decided that, whatever was going on, it was not focused upon them.
Eagerness was etched upon every single face in the assembly hall, even the faces of the wounded and bereaved. Expectation had been gripping Higginstown since at least the dawn of that day; now it was coming to a climax. Something, it was clear, was about to happen.
They watched, and waited.
Brendan had never expected to walk the carpets of Higginstown Comprehensive again.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true; he had harboured the usual fantasies of revisiting his old stomping ground, flush with success, and gloating over all the teachers who had ever crossed him. The much-reviled Mr. Calahan featured most prominently in these fantasies. Brendan would never forget the day Mr. Calahan had read out a short story he’d written—a short story over which Brendan had laboured for an entire weekend, and for which he had expected the highest praise—as an example of pretension and self-indulgence. “This is precisely the sort of thing I don’t want to get”, he had announced, waving it in the air, and smirking at the sniggers he’d drawn.
It had been pretentious and self-indulgent. But Brendan had been fifteen. He had gone home that evening and wept, for the last time in his life.
Those fantasies had dried up pretty quickly, and since then, Brendan had hardly thought about the Comp.
He had glimpsed Mr. Calahan in the recent tumult, and felt an absurd jab of fear. Even after all he had witnessed today, the thought of running into an old teacher scared him. But there hadn’t been much time to fret about it.
Eleanor had woken up when the air had started freezing over. She seemed to have avoided injury on their bizarre flight to this place. And what other word could be used for it, except flight? At times they had been carried through the air like paper bags. Even at the peak of his panic, Brendan had been exhiliarated. He was flying. He wished Eleanor had been conscious. That had always been one of her fantasies.
When she came to, she seemed less astonished by what was happening than he had expected. But then, why should he expect her to be paralysed with shock, when he felt no such paralysis himself? In the past few hours, he had experienced things that he would never have considered possible before. But they had happened. They were possible. Disbelief was quickly followed by acceptance; it happened in a matter of moments. He could see the same process in others. Already, normality was reasserting itself, like water finding its level.
Brendan and Eleanor had been separated from their next-door neighbour in the tempest. When they reached the school, a young woman called Sarah had helped him carry Eleanor. His sister had an arm draped around each of their shoulders. Eleanor had always been thin, so the burden was light.
“Are you sure you’re OK?”, Brendan asked her. She was looking more than a little groggy. A sort of hush had come over the crowd in the last few minutes, but he still had to raise his voice to be heard.
“I’ve told you I’m fine”, said Eleanor. “If you ask me again I’ll take my chances on my own, and let you find someone else to carry.”
Brendan looked at Sarah, expecting to find bemusement at this reaction. But instead, the girl was looking at him disapprovingly. She had a smooth, delicately-featured face, but even the arch of her eyebrows hinted at wilfulness. Her hair was half-way between blonde and chestnut, and fell to her shoulders in limp tresses. She had recognised Brendan from the bar of the Champion. He didn’t recognise her. He found it harder and harder to tell his juniors apart, the further he moved from his thirtieth birthday.
“What do you think is going to happen?”, she asked him now.
Brendan looked towards the stage. Everybody seemed to be looking in that direction, as if they expected a performance to begin. Perhaps I could reprise my role as the frankinscense-bearing Wise Man, he thought..
“I think they’re waiting for someone to take charge”, said Brendan.
“Why are most people such cattle?”, asked Sarah, disdainfully, but showing no indication of doing anything herself.
“It’s safer”, said Brendan. “Until you get slaughtered, that is.”
“And how is it getting light again?”, asked Sarah, ignoring Brendan’s attempt at a joke, and looking towards the windows of the assembly hall. They were positioned towards the very top of the walls, where only the strayest of basketballs might reach them. The sky looked like the sky of a winter’s morning, and there was already enough light to make out faces at the other end of the hall.
“How can that surprise you?”, asked Brendan. “Considering what you’ve seen already?”
“I’ve seen freaky winds”, said Sarah. “And I heard…something. But how can the Earth reverse its rotation?”
“What makes you think we’re still on the Earth?”, asked Brendan. “Maybe we’ve died and this is…what comes next.”
“Don’t be ridiculous”, said Eleanor, quickly, looking like she had swallowed something nasty.
“Nothing is ridiculous anymore”, said Brendan. As soon as he said it he felt pleased with himself. It was like something from a book of quotations, he thought, said by some famous statesman at a pivotal point in history. We are all socialists now. The lights are going out all over Europe. The Pyrennees have ceased to exist. He’d always wanted to say something like that.
But neither of the women seemed in the least impressed. Eleanor made a face. “I’m sure you’ll find a way”, she said, and Sarah grinned.
“Somebody is going to get crushed”, said a woman somewhere ahead of them. But there seemed little prospect of that. He remembered the factoid that was routinely trotted out for Did You Know?-type columns: The entire population of the world, shoulder to shoulder, could fit on the Isle of Man. It seemed doubtful to him, but it was clear that the entire population of Higginstown had little trouble fitting into this school assembly hall-cum-gymnasium. They were wedged together like toys in a playroom box, but nobody seemed on the verge of passing out.
“I always wanted to go to the Isle of Man”, said Brendan, feeling strangely giddy. “I wonder if I’ll get the chance now.”
Both of the women ignored him. Something was happening. Somebody was clambering onto the stage.
It was a man wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a CND logo. (The school had grown too warm for coats and jumpers; mounds of them were lined against the walls of the assembly hall.) He was in early middle age, and his sandy hair had receded past his forehead. There was something cadaverous about his face, but there was a gleam of intelligence in his eyes.
There was a podium with a microphone at the front of the stage. He walked towards it, though there was no electricity to power it anymore. The hum of the crowd rose to a crescendo, and then fell to a mere murmur. He raised his hands in the air, appealing to them.
“Please listen to me”, he shouted. He had a strong North Dublin accent, with a rather nasal twang. “Please listen to me.”
The murmur fell even further, though far short of complete silence. Brendan felt a tingle of anticipation. He was frightened of what he was going to hear, and avid for it. This man looked as though he was in possession of secrets. But he looked just as scared as everybody else; maybe even more scared.
“Please listen to me”, he repeated a final time, and then scanned the crowd for half a minute, sweeping the sea of heads with his nervous eyes. “Please believe me. You have to believe what I’m going to say to you.”
He hesitated, and looked behind him, and for a moment Brendan thought that he was going to retreat from the podium, to disappear back into the crowd. But the next moment he ducked his head, as if preparing to dive into a pool, and when he raised it again there was a look of defiance on his face.
“This is not happening”, he shouted. “This is not happening.” His voice grew even louder, so that it rang in the cramped hall: “THIS IS NOT HAPPENING!”.
Brendan felt a jolt pass through his body. It seemed to have passed through everybody else, simultaneously. Now the man was pressing his right index finger against his temple.
“Use your reason”, he was crying. The murmur of the crowd was slowly growing louder, but they were still paying attention. “Things like this don’t happen. Right now we’re all probably lying in beds, drugged to the eyeballs, being examined by scientists for some screwed-up experiment—“
Suddenly, somebody shouted something that Brendan could not make out; something volcanic with fury and disgust. It was like the first shot of a gun battle; a half a second later, the hall was filled with shouts and screams, and within a few more moments a chorus of booing had begun.
The man was shouting at the top of his voice, now. But his shouts were impossible to hear. There was too much clamour from the floor. Now hundreds of voices were shouting: “Off! Offf! Off! Off! Off!”. Eleanor was saying something, but she might as well have been on the other side of the floor for all Brendan could hear her.
The man was weeping now—tears of rage and frustration, it seemed—but he stepped backwards into the darkness of the stage. Brendan wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make his way back into the throng. He was doubtless frightened of being torn apart. All the latent anger in the mob was resolving itself upon his head.
Now somebody else was stepping up to the stage. Brendan had seen him before, but it took a few moments for recognition to break the surface of his mind. It was the old man who had spoken to him the night he had started work in the Champion. What had he called himself again? Something odd; a nickname. Whiskey? That wasn’t it.
“Toffee!”, he heard a woman shouting from behind him.
“I know that guy to look at”, Sarah said. “I see him in the shop. He buys three newspapers every morning.”
“He looks even madder than the last one”, said Eleanor. “Stop clutching me like that”, she snapped, turning to Brendan. “Are you trying to stop my circulation?”
“Sorry”, said Brendan, easing his grip, though he was frightened of losing hold of his sister. The crowd was perpetually shuffling, like the lapping of a lake after a day of torrential rain.
Once again, the hum of voices rose and fell, as the old man made his way to the podium. He was wearing a battered green sportscoat and a pair of cream slacks. The strands of his red-grey hair were ruffled and sticking up, as though he had just got out of bed—or emerged from a rugby scrum—and his face was as pink as the inside of a strawberry. His glasses looked steamed over with the heat of the hall.
He stood there, with his hands in his pockets, waiting for the hubbub to die down, looking bewildered. He smiled once or twice, but that only made him seem even more confused. Brendan could feel the derision that was rippling through the crowd; he could hear the first spray of laughter, and he thought it was about to flood over the hall within moments. He dreaded the prospect. He remembered Toffee as a good-hearted creature, and right now he looked as helpless as a bird with an injured wing. But what could be expected from a crowd, except for cruelty?
By now the noise had subsided enough for Toffee to shout: “Attention! Attention!”. It took him much longer to quell the hubbub than it had taken the man in the CND t-shirt, but after three or four minutes, curiosity seemed to get the better of impatience. Brendan heard cries of “Shut up, let’s hear him!”, and “Let’s get it over with.” Before too long, the hall was as quiet as it had been yet.
“I have no answers”, said Toffee, finally, still with hands in his pockets. “I only have guesses.”
Laughter—scornful laughter—trickled from the crowd. There was nothing funny in what Toffee had said. But people were ready to laugh; happy to laugh, after all that had happened. Brendan could feel a slackening of tension in the air.
Toffee smiled at the laughter. He looked like a cross between a scarecrow and a village idiot. He took his hands from his pockets, and gripped the edges of the podium. The scorn in the audience was rapidly changing to a kind of amused appreciation. If laughter was still possible, surely things weren’t all that bad?
“The first thing I think we have to accept”, said Toffee now, raising one long finger in the air, “is that this is happening, and it’s not some kind of hallucination or freak of the weather or—with all respect to the previous speaker—government experiment.” A gust of laughter passed through the crowd. Brendan wondered where the man with the CND t-shirt had ended up.
“There might be a rational explanation for this”, continued the old man. Now people were listening to him more respectfully—Brendan could see that from the faces around him. “But it’s not the sort of rational we’ve been used to. This is something different. I say it again: This is something different.” He paused between every word the second time he said it.
Brendan looked at Sarah and Eleanor. Now they were listening to Toffee with the smooth, attentive faces of children before a teacher. He couldn’t help feeling impressed at the ease with which the old man had won them over.
“I mean, look above us”, said Toffee, raising his own head. Thousands of people echoed the movement, most of them slowly, with obvious reluctance. They did not seem to want to see what Toffee was drawing to their attention. Already, since the last time Brendan had looked, the sky outside was brighter, beginning to glow with the white gleam of a winter morning. “It’s getting brighter. All of our watches and clocks have stopped—check if you don’t believe me—but I guess it would be about a quarter past nine, going by normal reckoning. But do any of us really believe that time is still the same?”
At this there was something close to silence. The air grew heavy, and for the first time, breathing and coughing and the shuffling of feet could be heard, along with the muted weeping of long-ignored children.
“We all know that time is different now. We know that.”
“What are you saying?”, somebody called out. It was a man’s voice, and it was edged with desperation. “That time has just stopped?”. The last word was almost a shout, and yet the man didn’t sound angry. It was panic, and not fear, that escaped from him in that last explosive syllable.
But Toffee himself seemed calm. Perhaps it was this more than anything else that had held the throng. He even had the shadow of a smile on his lips. Now he looked in the direction from which the voice had come, and said: “I don’t think time has stopped, exactly. I think—in some strange way I don’t even pretend to understand-- that it’s started going backwards. “
Brendan felt his entire body clench when Toffee said that. He could not have said why. The silence in the hall held, but somehow, that was tightening too, like air the moment before a downpour of rain. Toffee must have felt the same thing, because he held up two hands for silence, and cried: “Hear me out!”
It was the first time he had shouted. The pent-up feeling lingered, but whatever exclamations or demands had been upon peoples’ lips lingered unsaid, too.
“I’ve witnessed this myself”, said Toffee. “Yesterday, some little blackguards put a stone through my kitchen window. All that was left was a few shards around the frame. When I woke up this morning, there wasn’t a crack in it. And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve heard dozens of stories, floating on the ether of Higginstown. Injuries disappearing the next day. Money seeming to grow back in wallets. Women going to the hairdresser and waking up with their old hairstyles.”
Now, as if they could be restrained no longer, murmurs broke out all over the hall, murmurs of reluctant agreement.. Brendan heard one voice—an old man’s voice, shaking like almost like the voice of a man freezing to death— declaring “My dog came back to life”. It had the sound of a confession, a confession given up with dread and relief to whatever ears might hear it.
But then a single word pierced through the hubbub; a woman’s voice, clear and strong. “Why?”
The murmurs faded away again. The eyes and ears of the crowd turned back to Toffee, who was smoothing out his hair, as if he had just realised how dishevelled it was. His hand stopped in mid-motion, and his eyes moved around the assembly, trying to vain to see who had spoken. All of a sudden, he looked ridiculous again.
“I don’t know”, he said, throwing his arms in the air. “And I don’t believe for a second that anybody knows. But it’s what we’re going to have to puzzle out.”
But now Brendan, along with hundreds of others, noticed a tiny figure climbing onto the stage, with considerable difficulty. It was a girl. She looked perhaps eleven or twelve years old, and she was dressed in a rainbow t-shirt and a pair of denim dungarees. Her crow-black hair hung all the way down her back. It looked as through every strand of it had been individually brushed.
Toffee didn’t notice her until she was tugging at the leg of his slacks. She was gazing up into his face, and there was no look of reverence upon her porcelain-doll features. In fact, Brendan thought he had never seen a child look so utterly disdainful.
Toffee looked down. Brendan had expected him to smile at the sight of the girl, but he didn’t. In fact, a curious look that might have been fear passed over his face, and he stepped back in a way that appeared almost involuntary. His eyes did not move from the little girl as he retreated another step, and another.
But the girl looked as though she had already forgotten Toffee. She had stepped forward past the podium—which was bigger than her—and now stood at the very edge of the stage, as though she was about to jump off.
There were a few titters from the crowd, but titters that seemed nervous rather than amused. The girl certainly didn’t look as though she was playing a game. She raised her own arms in the air. She looked small even for her age, but that only made her audacity more impressive. And more unnerving.
“Don’t listen to him”, she shouted, and her words filled the hall. She could hardly have sounded more little-girlish, short of lisping, but her voice was heavy with authority. “I do know what’s happening.”
Brendan felt his heart thrumming faster in his chest. This is it, he thought, without knowing why. He heard more than a few people around him whimper, as though they were thinking the same thought.
“It’s all because of the Snowman”, said the girl. “The Snowman did all this. And he’s coming. He’s coming here. Right now.”