Tundra

by Kevin Barry


I tell you that right there looks to me like fresh snow, says the old man at the window seat.

But it's nearly May already, says his wife.

Nothing surprises me about weather any more, he says, and he tinkers with a bag full of pill bottles.

Put on your eye-glasses, Alvin, she says.

We are flying over B.C. and from the window seat the mountains are dalmation, or piebald. We cross sharp crests and vertiginous buttes, we see thin blue streams negotiate the black-ice slopes. There are expanses of turfy scrag, a rich brown like chocolate. The snow is banked deeply, even now late in April, and the ice fields glisten for as far as you can see. A melon sun glows over the vast country, it's all of it primordial and ancient, would put you in touch with your inner anthropoid.

It is medication time on the London flight and the elderly couple down their pastel pills with chicken-neck swallows. They set their watches to Euro-time.

You know what time it is we got now, Rose? he says. It's twenty after five!

Twenty after five! she says.

At home, he says, we'd be putting away after breakfast.

Putting away after breakfast! she says.

You picture the pills at work. Thinning the blood and checking arrythmia. The pills as janitors of colon and spleen. Across the Hudson Bay now and over the Labrador Sea. The pills jars come out every hour and on the hour.

Put on your eye-glasses, Alvin, she says.

They're right here on my goddamn face, Rose, he says.

The clouds thicken and coagulate. Sometimes they part to allow a cold view. Nobody can look down without imagining themselves lost down there.

* * * * *

DVT is what it is, Rose, he says. That's Deep Vein Thrombosis. Clots in the brain and you're dead before they get you to the ground. Don't matter what age or creed you are. That's DVT is what it is.

Clots in the brain sounds like that's about it, hon.

Clots in the brain is the last thing we need, trust me. But it's dummies that get DVT mostly, dummies that drink on 'planes and don't move around none. That's what you got not to do. Drink or sit there like a sack of shit. So you go and stretch whenever you want Rose and don't even think nothing of it. We're paying green money same as everybody else is paying green money. If you want to go stretch, go stretch.

Dead before we hit the ground!

* * * * *

There are many types of passenger. There are thin English pub girls bronzed from the effluent beaches of the west coast, there are fat salami Italians. The Germans amplify sternly. There are Balkan ponces and there are irritated Swiss. You will find the babymammas of Lithuanian gangsters, you will find French priests with nicotine cravings.

The problem, apparently, is something mechanical. Something is out by, like, millimetres. The pilot tries to explain and as he does so he retains an admirable calm. He says a landing is required, actually, and this will be achieved shortly. He sounds like a guy in a black and white war movie. The ice below us now is apparently Greenland ice. The passengers remain mostly pretty cool-headed, though one guy breaks up and screams about getting off this fucking death-bird. He is quietened forcibly with an injection of some kind. The plane begins to descend. It eats up the air very quickly. When he said landing I guess we all pictured some snowy little airport for Greenlanders. But there is no airport, just an ice field.

The pilot brings the plane down smoothly. We all applaud but the applause fades quickly as we look out the windows.

* * * * *

They give us brandy miniatures for calm. We cannot remain on the plane because of something got to do with potential explosions. I believe there has been a small engine fire but everything is mysterious. We scuttle away from the plane and slip across the ice in a fretful, hard-breathing slapstick. We are shepherded together in the lee of an outcrop of, I don't know, granite or some shit, where the chill does not bite so hard. It is almost summer here. We huddle under smother blankets and life jackets for extra heat. Help will be along real soon, they say. They are light-hearted. They say, you've seen those documentary movies on Discovery channel about penguins in the Arctic? You know in winter, the penguins form into these enormous concentric circles, they huddle together and circle endlessly, move their little feet side to side? This is how they keep warm and alive. And, basically, folks, that is what we have got to do now.

The chattering democracy of the 747 forms on the ice into concentric circles. We move about, rotating. We flap our arms. The way this works means you float in and out of very many conversations. The talk winds round and circles.

* * * * *

I mean that's a whole heap of fuckin' tundra right there, you know what I'm saying?

What does real estate go for out here?

Yeah hey with those snow shovels and shit you know we could make like rudimentary ploughs, you know, and we can like settle the place!

Now you're farmin'!

The nearest town I guess is probably, what, Upernavik? Party town?

And this is summer, right?

The radio is still down?

I guess I'm anti-pastoral, you know? Clouds, skies, mountains, snow. Piece of shit.

It's like, hey, here's another fucking thousand miles of beauty.

She's as if she's on some kind of emotional Slimfast.

My husband is like one of those second-hand books you buy that's got all the wrong bits under-lined.

So I go on indoors, right, I say to her, I say, darlin', you sayin' you ain't seen him since Tuesday, you say he ain't been around, blah blah blah. She goes, naw, I ain't seen him, I been down my sister's, I been over my mom's, x, y, zed ...

Blah, blah, blah. X, y, zed.

You think the cold could freeze the watches, Alvin?

Yes on the boat now six months many islands no true alcohol just beer. That is how Pacific islands is yes? No alcohol! I am Portugal originally.

First they said clear, now they're saying secondary.

* * * * *

I felt it there on the ice, with no sign of help surfacing over the wavering horizon. There was no message, no signal in billowing smoke. I knew that I might die there, regardless of everything, and I knew then that death was out of my hands and that this is how it should be. I felt death creep over the tundra and I knew that death would come and it did.

* * * * *

The light dims and we continue to circle. The talk has become drowsy and a little inebriated.

Very cocktaily, very cha-cha-cha. With those outdoor heaters you know what I'm saying? So you can like sit on the sidewalk in winter even. If that is what you want to do.

How many more years you think you're going to entertain me apeing TV comedians?

And the brother was blown up in the Lebanon. If they have to bring another body back to Galway it'll be the end of the father.

I'm not even supposed to be on an aeroplane!

I think we should have an affair, really, I'm serious here. I am, I am being serious here! I barely know you but I know we are a fit I think.

I mean you want to try and make a fucking movie out of this? How'd you pitch it? Nobody would believe this shit! They'd say you get the fuck out of here asshole!

So you're saying you're one of these high-functioning alcoholics, basically?

I think you're a very attractive woman for your age. And I don't mean that in an insulting way. Age is only time. And what's time? I'm reading a lot of cosmology at the moment. Your idea of time might be completely different to mine. I mean what's a day? What's a year? Who's to say everybody doesn't have a different idea of a minute? But then I think should we even think about this stuff?

This is nothing. One time I was flying from the Ukraine? You know like Kiev? In this piece of crap Aeroflot plane? And they're saying we got to make a stop in like Belarus?

When your time is up your time is up.

Everything is predestined.

Jesus love never failed me yet.

God has a plan.

* * * * *

Night time comes and the talk fades. We continue to circle even as we eat the crackers and pretzels they pass around and we drink from the tiny bottles. Alvin dies. Then Rose. The sky is enormous with many stars. The Aurora Borealis does its thing and everybody is wowed. Those shooting stars are so, so beautiful and there are so many colours. It's quite a light show. An army of snowmobiles arrives from Upernavik, buzzing over the snow like some kind of giant sleek ice beetles. They are in pastel colours and the atmosphere they make is festive, like an adventure snow weekend or something. The flight crew is congratulated because two dead is an amazing result. Everybody is pretty drunk. Alvin and Rose lie side by side, shadowy and bunched, together in bodybags on the ice.

* * * * *

And we cut down past the Scottish isles now and over the green country and the grey cities. And then rainy London finally. There is a sense of hush and terrific pride. Teetering down the steps I feel hungover and newborn, almost as if I can scrape the plasma and the birth gunk from my face.

I am greenlighted and bulletproof.
KEVIN BARRY is an Irish writer based in Ithaca. He's published stories in Phoenix Best Irish Short Stories, PIF magazine in Seattle, and various webby things. He also writes about travel for the Irish Times and the Glasgow Herald.
TAR