Icicles dripped from Kevin’s earlobes. His breath was colder than stone. For three days he’d been sitting on the couch with a duvet wrapped round his shivering, bitter-cold body.
For the tenth time I said, ‘Kevin it’s all in your mind man.’
But he clutched himself. His teeth rattled. Every breath was visible, like icy fog.
Outside, the town shimmered. Ice-cream vans jingled from dawn until dusk. Underneath the shade of various trees – the names of which trees I could no longer recall – people stretched out on the grass and read books. Children blew bubbles and chased those bubbles. At the beach, on the town’s outskirts, the Sun warmed the interesting, fish-inhabited rock pools – now pools of gold – where people sat, dangling feet, dipping toes into the water, disturbing the surface.
Icecubes rattled in pints of cider.
I knocked on Kevin’s bedroom door.
Thirty silent seconds passed.
I pushed the door open. Cold air moulded itself to my face. ‘Kevin, Kev? Are you asleep?’
He groaned. Dry ice ascended. His hair, like blades of grass on a winter morning, was coated with frost. And his lips, chapped, had turned blue.
‘Maybe we should go outside. Do you want to go outside?’
Trembling, he shook his head.
Another week passed. Kevin did not leave his room. I phoned Rebecca. She called over.
We stood in the oblong frame of Kevin’s bedroom doorway.
‘Look,’ I said.
‘Jesus,’ Rebecca said.
Kevin was in bed. Icicles dripped from the corners of his mouth.
‘Maybe there’s somewhere he could thaw out,’ she said.
‘Like Africa maybe.’
‘We could get people to donate. Can he hear us?’
‘I don’t know. Like a charity?’
‘Start a campaign is what we need to do.’
The campaign occupied the consciousness of thousands. Send Kevin to Africa, Help Kevin Thaw. Offices, canteens, cafes, social networking sites; everybody had an opinion about the necessity or not of getting Kevin to the Equator.
The place to Africa shook through pools of turbulence.
Kevin fell asleep.
I watched a documentary about Kevin Costner. He said, ‘I’d like to put on buckskins and a ponytail and go underwater with a reed, hiding from the Indians. To me, that’s –’
Rebecca tapped me on the shoulder. I removed the earphones.
‘Fucking Kevin Costner,’ I said.
‘Look,’ she said.
I leaned over her and looked out the window: Africa.
We landed. A driver was waiting for us in arrivals.
‘He’s going to look after us,’ Rebecca said.
I put my arm around Kevin’s back and helped him walk outside.
The heat was merciless. Rebecca put on a pair of sunglasses. ‘This way,’ the driver said. We walked across the hot concrete.
A journalist followed. Mid-stride, she held a Dictaphone up to Kevin’s glacial face. ‘Kevin, are you excited about this trip?’
‘He can’t talk,’ I said. ‘If he tries to talk his teeth rattle like mad.’
‘No family accompanying him?’
I shook my head.
‘Has he any family?’
‘If he has we haven’t heard from them. Have we Rebecca?’
She shook her head.
‘Did he ever talk about family?’
‘What did he talk about?’
‘Did? Why are you using the word “did”? He’s not dead.’
‘Sorry, what does he talk about?’
‘Same as anyone.’
‘Look if you’re looking for a quote about Mr. Freeze I don’t have one.’
‘Was there any inkling this might happen? Any?’
Rebecca and I looked at each other.
‘No,’ I said.
‘How long are you prepared to stay in Africa?’
‘Couple weeks, a month, depending,’ Rebecca said.
‘And you, Dave?’
‘Not sure,’ I said. ‘Christ I’m burning up. Here, Kev, give me a hug.’
‘Were you surprised at the response to your campaign?’
‘Restores you faith,’ Rebecca said.
‘Is anyone else burning up?’
The jeep rattled north across potholes and stones. Through the windows and sunroof, the Sun poured ferocious heat but, because of the cold air which crept from Kevin’s body, we were forced to wear coats.
Beyond the window to my right, unfolding toward the horizon, was Africa. Until that moment I’d only ever seen such a landscape on BBC documentaries. Yet, even now, although surrounding us, the landscape seemed unreal and, paradoxically, had seemed more real when I’d seen it on those BBC documentaries. I looked to my left, at Kevin. Sitting between Rebecca and I, he was curled up and wrapped in a rug; his eyes immobile, oblivious.
I was tired after the long flight. But I didn’t want to fall asleep. Instead I held my eyes open, resisting sleep, drinking in the grassy flatlands, the afternoon.
We arrived, four hours later, in the village. Stepping out of the jeep, I tore my coat off and gasped. Sweat fell like huge drops of translucent blood from my forehead.
‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘I’m burning up.’
The villagers had been told about Kevin. Banners of welcome were draped from hut to hut; a group sang and played drums.
A woman approached. Our driver spoke to her, nodded.
‘Her name is Asatira. You will be accommodated in her home.’
We took our rucksacks there. Made of clay, rods, and cow dung, the house was adjacent to a small farm.
‘She is a respected woman in the village,’ the driver said. ‘But her husband is dead and her sons have left to find work in the city. She will be glad of the company.’
We returned to the village square. The TV crew had built a canopy and set up the camera and microphone. The Sun thrashed down wave upon wave of blinding white heat. A chair was placed in the centre of the square
The driver said, ‘Sit him here.’
I helped Kevin to the chair. The locals stood in a circle around the village square.
And we waited.
Rebecca and I sat in a patch of shade provided by a tree on the square’s perimeter. Neither of us moved a muscle; the sweat dripped and dripped.
I looked at Kevin. He had his arms wrapped round his body and was trembling.
‘Surely he’ll melt,’ I said.
Rebecca fixed her sunglasses on the bridge of her nose. ‘Surely,’ she said.
We stared at him.
A fortnight passed. Most days Rebecca and I sat in the shade, glancing occasionally at Kevin.
‘What if he doesn’t melt?’ Rebecca said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘All the donations we got.’
At night we ate dinner on Asatira’s porch. Kind eyes, fifty years old, she knew some English.
‘Your friend,’ she said. ‘Problem?’
‘Too many cold,’ she said. ‘Baridi.’
‘Baridi. Cold?’ Rebecca said.
‘Yes. Cold. Baridi.’
‘Baridi,’ Rebecca said. ‘Baridi.’
‘Mr. Baridi,’ I said.
Kevin froze completely.
It was three weeks after we’d arrived, a cruel afternoon. I found him outside Asatira’s house: motionless; his whole body, frozen.
‘Kevin? Kev? Kevin can you hear me?’
I carried him to the village square and lay him on the ground.
The villagers gathered.
Rebecca, on her hunkers, said, ‘Look though. You can see his heart is still beating.’
Asatira shook her head. ‘Big problem.’
‘Baridi,’ I said. ‘Baridi, baridi.’
The villagers murmured.
A pole was hammered into the earth. Kevin’s body was tied to the pole. The icicles flashed in the screaming African sun.
‘Maybe he doesn’t want to melt.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Maybe he wants to be frozen. Maybe he’s happy that way. Maybe he prefers being Mr. Baridi.’
A bus trundled into the village and a group of people tumbled out onto the scorched earth.
‘You must be Dave.’
I stared at them.
‘We’re here to see Mr. Freeze.’
‘His name’s Kevin.’
‘We heard about him on TV.’
‘Oh Henry look at that.’
‘Oh my oh.’
‘Can you tell us about him? I mean you must really. You must really have some insight.’
‘You came all the way here to see Kevin?’ Rebecca said.
I shook my head and looked at the earth.
‘I mean it’s the story of the year, it’s… We just had to come.’
‘What was he like?’
‘Quiet,’ I said. I swiped a mosquito from my face.
The trickle of tourists became a flood. The villagers set up stalls and sold fruit juice. One carved unnervingly perfect wooden models of Kevin’s frozen body.
‘And was he in a relationship?’
‘Well he said something once about an ex-girlfriend but.’
‘I didn’t want to probe.’
‘What did he say?’
‘That he had one.’
Rebecca said she couldn’t stay any longer. Her tears as she spoke fell onto the dusty earth and evaporated. ‘If they had the Internet I’d stay here forever.’
‘I think I’ll stay a while longer,’ I said.
Without much conscious effort I was soon able to tell the time by the position of the shadow cast from the top of Kevin’s head. The tip of the shadow, like a pen without ink, from dawn until dusk, drew an invisible elliptical curve across the dust.
Every morning, as the sun was ascending, I’d walk to the well to collect water. The sun sparkled. Water splashed on stone.
The women, dressed in bright colours, talked and laughed and argued. Some washed their hair. Through them I began to learn the names for the plants and the animals.
‘And that is mti.’
We were walking around the village. The girl was telling me the names of things.
Mid-step, I stopped. A strong sense of what felt like déjà vu had suddenly come over me. The girl, who’d walked a few steps ahead, turned around.
I began to forget about my old life. All the memories I had of before I’d arrived in Africa adopted the quality of a dream.
One year after arriving, I proposed to the girl.
The wedding ceremony was held in the village square. Music was played and food was served. We danced and danced under the big red sun. And the elderly men and women stood beside Kevin, talking, laughing, and relaxing in the cold air which pulsed from his frozen, frozen body.