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Glacier

Harry Lowther

I watched a documentary online in the morning. It was about a glacier in Greenland. Of course, the glacier was melting, but it was turning out to be worse than the worst predictions, and the minimum damage would be a 27cm rise in the sea level. It could be as high as 78cm. Huge chunks of ice cascaded down white cliffs into the water below, the scale of it all making the footage look like it had been slowed down. All of human destruction could be measured in centimetres. I thought about my parents’ house and how low down it was, how close to the river. I imagined them opening the front door and water rushing in and ruining the carpet that they’d only had put in two years ago. I made a mental note to call them soon and plant the idea of selling the house. I deserve my inheritance.


At lunchtime I got a message from Jamie. We’d meet at the old cinema, a brutal multiplex that had closed in 2019. It was situated away from anything interesting, with a now barely used car park and a couple of fast food places, one of which had closed along with the cinema itself. There was no street and no houses. There was no reason for people to be there any more.


I cycled out up the overpass. The sun was scorching my bare, pale legs and the city smelled like sunscreen and hot garbage, cooking in the afternoon. There were still hours of it left. Below me was the deep rumble of traffic and criss-crossed lanes, car horns, people sweating out their arse onto leather seats, blasting air-con, screaming from their windows. My legs pumped. No problem, even in the heat. A water bottle filled up from the tap and clipped on the bike and another in my bag. A beautiful day for it. As I started coming down the other side there was still barely a breeze to shift the sweat clustering on my hairline.


Fifteen minutes later the cinema came into view. A windowless, concrete tombstone. Back in the day I’d spent countless birthday parties here, the location out of town making it easier for parents to drive to than the remaining one in the city centre. There was no traffic now. I aimed my bike at the car park.


I could see three figures hanging around outside, taking up space in the way only young men can. Young men. If we were still young. The gap between us and the fearless teenagers who used to come out seemed bigger all the time. The empty road reflected the sunlight as the building cast deep shadows across it, my eyes struggling to adjust from one to the other, the sudden change.


Jamie was the first that I could make out, doing some keepy-ups with a tattered football, with Luis and Olly dangling their legs from a high wall beside him. In turn, they looked up and nodded as they heard me. I pulled up to them and leant the bike against the wall. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Beautiful day for it.’


The lads on the wall murmured agreement. ‘We’ve had, what, two weeks of this now?’ Said Jamie. ‘Bloody amazing. It’s only fucking May. Class.’


I unclipped the bottle and pressed it to my forehead. It wasn’t cool. ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a good summer.’


‘It’s all ahead of us,’ said Olly.


Jamie chipped the ball over to me. ‘We’ve got weeks of this, at least.’ I caught it with the inside of my left foot, and it gave more of a thud than a bounce. Segments of it were peeling off, like a piece of spoiled fruit, slowly collapsing. ‘Where’d you get this from?’ Jamie shrugged. I passed it back to him and he launched it into the pitch-black open mouth of the car park. We heard a couple of dull bounces echo from the darkness.


‘He shoots, he scores,’ I said.


‘Every time,’ Jamie said, before giving me the side eye. ‘Danny got stuck with work. Couldn’t make it.’


‘Seems he always does these days.’


Truth was we used to get ten or twelve people coming out with us. Now we were lucky to hit half that. People partnered up or even had a kid, and couldn’t find the time, or got themselves into a situation in life where they didn’t want the police bothering them on a Saturday afternoon, for whatever reason.


‘So, anyone else?’


‘Nah,’ replied Olly, jumping down. He checked his phone quickly before looking back up at us. ‘So, where we starting?’ Luis remained on the wall, closing his eyes and pointing his face to the sun and making a low noise of appreciation. ‘There is a gap I have seen. On the second storey, from the ramp, you can maybe make the gap across to the cinema. There’s a ledge that comes out, with some vent or something above it for your hands. It will be a challenge, but maybe one of us can do it.’


The gap between the two concrete structures must have been around 12 feet across – twice my height – and the wall itself mostly sheer, pale concrete.


Jamie clapped his hands. ‘Then let’s go.’ And we set off into the dark mouth.


Once my eyes had adjusted I could see the state of the car park. There were a couple of cars here, abandoned and vandalised, crippled on slashed tyres. The broken glass of their windows was mixed with the remnants of discarded beer bottles and other debris, fast food cartons, plastic. ‘The car park is still operating?’ Asked Luis. ‘Well, it’s still here,’ said Jamie, ‘I don’t know how else a car park operates.’ But nobody parked inside. If you were going to park here, you were safer parking out in the street, where someone might see you. We had grown quieter, listening for company. We were four young men in athletic gear, not an obvious target, or at least not an easy one, but still, the place was unnerving.


We circled around to the first ramp up. Olly sped up a couple of steps, his off-white trainers tensing with the arch of his foot, quickly cutting the air, then jumped up onto the side wall, ran along up it, then at the halfway point leaped and pulled himself up the gap to the next storey. ‘Textbook,’ said Jamie. I laughed.


‘Let’s just be careful with all the glass around here,’ I said.


‘Yeah, yeah. No falls today, boys. Nasty shit down here.’


Luis followed Olly, repeating the same moves at the same positions, his footsteps following closely. We’d all fallen before. Countless times, so often you didn’t even think of it. But there were still the bad falls. The ones that you did think about, but that you didn’t talk about. Showing off your war wounds was part of the fun, a mark of your real life. A piece of the street that had left itself on you. This – I would point to the crescent scar on my left elbow – Farmsbury Road. Rusted bar came right out of the wall as I was holding my weight on it, and down I went. But sometimes people stopped coming, and we didn’t want to see their scars.


My knees bent easily to jump, then braced for the impact of the concrete, the soft slap echoing, the push of the toes, two lines of soldiers, to propel onwards. It all comes naturally, easily, movements practised over a lifetime. The body remembers each jump, each landing, each fall. When we were teenagers we would jump onto cars when they were stuck in traffic, running up the roof and then jumping to the next one. It was hilarious that drivers would have to actually get out to chase us, leaving their wheels behind. And they never caught us. We didn’t do anything like that any more. We left other people alone, and hoped they would give us the same respect. But when we’d been teenagers there had been nothing to do. Now, there was even less.


We kept on climbing, further away from the sunlight. Some of it snuck in through the gaps in the concrete, but otherwise we were underneath the shallow illumination of some flickering, fluorescent lights, many of them cast to darkness completely, never to be repaired or replaced or repurposed. Despite the heat outside, it couldn’t get through the thick concrete all around us.


On the second storey we explored the space, and the gaps out at the cinema side. It was true, the part of the wall with the metal vent made for a perfect landing spot above a small ledge, just wide enough to tense your big toe on. The ledge itself was maybe directly across, maybe even an inch lower. The difficulty was the jump itself. It was wide across, with a step up before you could jump which would slow your momentum. Then, although you didn’t want to think too hard about these things, was the long drop below. The private walkway between the cinema and the car park, maybe used before for taking the bins out, now empty aside for some loose litter and bird shit.


We discussed the possibility of the jump in generalities, assessing the distance, the best technique for running up and getting up the step. I wondered who was going to try it first. I didn’t look too hard as I surveyed it. Luis was looking hardest and pacing the most. He was building himself up. He must have been close to trying it when Jamie announced he was going to do it.


Luis examined him for a few moments, as if he was a particularly tricky landing. Then the two of them went into a short, low conversation about the run-up.


‘Jamie,’ I said, inserting myself. ‘You want me to film it?’


He took a moment of silence before replying that yeah, if I wanted to. A few years ago we tried to make the social media thing happen, but it didn’t take off, and none of us were bothered enough to push it. That world was a jungle, and there seemed to be an endless number of younger people who knew it natively. Now we were watching other people online who had quit their jobs, flew all over the world, and seemed to love every minute.


I unlocked my phone, and left it open on the camera, the floor swaying back and forth on the screen. Jamie was pacing and swinging his arms now, getting loose. Luis was still making calculations as Olly looked around, and the sunlight came through the gap, the distant sound of a helicopter approaching, and the car park stayed still and then Jamie went out of nowhere, gaining speed on the flat surface, making the hop up easily and then he disappeared and we all ran to the barrier to see him in the air.


His hands landed on the vent and his fingers tried to grasp and then he had slipped and he fell.


He landed with a crunch and a hollow metal echo.


There was the moment of the slip and then that moment was definitively over and the next moment, the moment of the response, had begun.


It shouldn’t have happened so fast. It seemed impossible that he had slipped. He had done the jump, had his hands where they needed to be. I would shortly find out from the slick, black smears on Jamie’s hands that there had been anti-climb paint on the top of the vent, and that’s why he hadn’t been able to grip. On the surface it looked like regular, dry paint, but, once your hand plunges through the surface, it carries it away.


Councils and building controllers used anti-climb paint to discourage people from doing things which might be dangerous by making them a lot more dangerous. It was horrible stuff, that, in the best case, would ruin your clothes.


Now we were running and, now, we were in the alley. Jamie’s right leg was in a bad way. It wasn’t in a position that a leg could be, and I couldn’t look right at it to see quite how bad it was. His face looked bad, but it was easier to look at. He had scraped one side down the wall when he fell, and it was red and bleeding, it looked like he would be the same way all down that side. He was lifting his head, which was good, but he had been unconscious for at least a few seconds, which wasn’t good. He was looking past us at the narrow, beautiful slice of clear blue sky above.


It was about a week later that he asked me for the footage, and I had to tell him that no, I hadn’t filmed it. It was recorded, incompletely, in four people’s memories. Jamie himself had lost the period of time between deciding he was going to jump, and doing it. Nobody had been ready.


Jamie wasn’t walking and Luis was out the country, something he had to do occasionally for unclear visa reasons, and so I had met Olly for a drink. It was the first time since that I had seen any of them outside of a hospital. He hadn’t seen Jamie coming, but he saw him land and then fall. He was so close, he had done it. And fallen. He told me he had been in earlier, and Jamie was getting darker in the things he was saying.


‘That’s funny,’ I said. ‘Dark how?’


‘Just, you know. Dark. Bleak.’ Olly winced in his seat and took a long drink, then pulled his jacket around himself like he had suddenly grown cold.


It wasn’t like Jamie to get dark. He had been fine enough when I spoke to him. And he was getting visits from his mother, who still looked after him and guarded him closely, having kept him out of various kinds of trouble for so long with him the only man in the house, and her with two more daughters who did get into trouble.


We had a couple more drinks. The bar was warm and dry. On and off the soft flickering glow

of the fruit machine against Olly’s cheek, the sound of plastic straws plunging into ice, ringing it against the glass, a few words with the young barmaid.


Jamie would be fine. The weather had changed, violently, in the last couple of days, and I took the bus home from the bar, passing through the night. I pressed my forehead against the cold condensation of the window as hard drops ran down the other side. I told myself it would be fine. Everything would be fine.

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