The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, part one: 'I put my arm up to protect my head from the impact...'

In the first of six extracts from The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas, abridged by Liam Rudden, meet Sybil and Simon…
The Snow and the Works on the Northern LineThe Snow and the Works on the Northern Line
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line


Chapter 1The accident was one of those stupid ones. It was the kind you’re supposed to laugh about later. It happened at Streatham Ice Rink; Simon had thought it would be fun to go there one evening, so that was what we did. Unfortunately, neither of us could skate; this had not occurred to us. Simon was better than me - he was able to stand upright without holding onto the side - but I did not enjoy myself a single minute I was there: my skates were as heavy as leg-irons, and the rink just seemed to go on and on: you could hardly see across to the other side.

I was​ ​wearing a bobble-hat that my mother had given me one Christmas years before, and an over-sized Parka that Simon had lent​ ​me, and I kept wondering why on earth you were supposed to​ ​skate on single blades when two per boot would have been so​ ​much more sensible; I couldn’t​ ​understand why no one in the​ ​skates business had ever thought of that.

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Looking up at one point I saw a blur of gold and silver tinsel draped around the crash barriers, and looking down I saw a large brownish-red patch beneath the surface of the ice. I thought: that’s someone’s blood. And I wondered how often the management at Streatham Ice Rink thawed the ice so they could get rid of things like that, little signs of something that had gone wrong.We’d been there for ten minutes or so, slogging around as people span and twirled about us when Simon said, ‘Oh, look – isn’t that what’s-her-name over there? Your old lecturer? Who was at your Christmas work thing the other night?’, and he suggested we push out towards the middle of the rink, to see if it was.I glanced over for a second, at my one-time university tutor and new work associate, Helen Hansen. I couldn’t imagine what she was doing there. It seemed enough that I was always bumping into her in the corridors at work. Her complexion was a rosy, athletic pink beneath her snowy-white hat and she was wearing a puffy, expensive-looking ski-jacket that looked as if it would have been better suited to the French Alps than Streatham Ice Rink.

‘I’m not sure it is her . . .’ I said.

Because if it was Helen Hansen, I didn’t really want to speak to her. There was a certain history between us, and everything on the rink was a blur anyway.‘It is her,’ Simon said. ‘We should say hello. It’ll be easier out there, anyway. More space.’‘Will it?’ I flicked a quick glance at the slab of ice beneath my boots. ‘But do we want more space? I’m not sure I want to say hello...’‘What’s wrong with her? She’s perfectly nice. We had a good chat the other night.’‘Really?’But because he was taller and broader than me I made the mistake of thinking he was also more stable on slippery surfaces, more dependable.

I did not say, ‘I think this is a bad idea; I once heard of someone leaving an ice rink minus half their fingers.’We just lurched out into the middle, towards Helen Hansen: archaeologist extraordinaire, rising businesswoman-cum-academic star, member of the Institute’s Board of Trustees.

It was a Friday night and the rink was packed with very tall 15-year-olds and couples who appeared to be so good on the ice that they were snogging while skating, and there was a soundtrack playing very loud and distorted from metal speakers jutting out across the rink - some Lionel Richie song I vaguely knew - and we were a long way out now, sliding like Brueghel’s peasants towards her, when I misjudged some technique I’d adopted for staying vertical, and felt myself slip. And straight away I knew this was not going to end well.

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Moving semi-horizontally, I reached out for Simon’s arm -‘Wha -?’ he said - then we were both on our backs on the ice, the air knocked flat out of us, and spinning like bottles. I’m not sure what happened after that. There was a lot of whiteness and coldness, the whole ice rink upside down and lit up and moving in a rush of tinsel and jackets and faces.

There were steel skates everywhere you looked, only now they were all at eye level, and Simon and I were rocketing towards the crash barriers, heading there fast, and I put my arm up to protect my head from the impact I knew was about to happen, and Lionel Richie was telling us it was quite a feeling, dancing on a ceiling and the 15-year-olds were braking all round us in a spray of ice-splinters and contempt. And for the briefest moment, I had a strange vision of my grandfather, of all people, who’d died a few months earlier: there was my grandad, as clear as daylight in my mind, and I thought: well, if I’m about to die it’ll be OK because Grandpa’s here to show me the ropes.

Then we hit the barriers, head first, and for a while after that I was nowhere at all.

Tomorrow: Helen Hansen to the rescue

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, by Ruth Thomas, published in paperback by Sandstone, priced £8.99

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