Icicles in my Veins


It has been a long time since I have been as cold as I was today. I spent 10 hours standing in an exposed muddy field with the relentless scouring of a cruel April chill.

Cold sadistically bites your lips, eats your fingers, imbibes your toes and slowly sucks the heat and life out of your heart. It is not content until it has you as a miserable, shivering, dysfunctional reptile, shuffling your feet and clapping your hands in a pathetic act of defiance.

Cold pervades and dominates every second. We search for anything to mitigate the pain by the slightest degree. We zip up our coat an extra inch. We pull up our socks an extra half-inch. We stand behind the flimsiest hint of shelter (a lamppost, a small tree) and we stuff our hands as deep as we can into our pockets.

As I shivered, I was reminded of the awful way cold has been used by men to suppress and torture fellow humans. There were endless atrocities in Auszwitz. One of them was the unrelenting punishment of the cold. Bodies unprotected by food, fat, decent clothing or even hair, sleeping on cold floors or wooden benches.

Cold is an absence and a neglect. Like an absence of love, it destroys the spirit and emaciates all hope.

My abiding impression of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” – an account of life in a Stalinist Siberian labour camp – is of the incredible cold. How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold? The cold stung. A murky fog wrapped itself around Shukhov and made him cough painfully. The temperature out there was -17; Shukov’s temperature was 99. The fight was on.

I’m not a great fan (excuse me) of being too warm. But that is a more a question of stuffiness, airlessness or humidity than of excruciating pain. A matter of discomfort easily relieved by removing a pullover, opening a window or stepping into the shade.

My most unpleasant experience at this end of the thermometer was in Hong Kong. Here the humidity was so high the air bled with water. And my skin, rather contrarily, reacted by perspiring moisture profusely in return. As if secreting more water would somehow help. In the Nevada and the Australian deserts, and in Nepal, the dry heat was comfortable, if treated with respect, hats and bottles of water. In Cyprus, one summer, it was rather excessive – like living under a hair dryer. But easy enough to evade with a step into our air-conditioned villa or a jump into the pool.

We can step aside from an excess of temperature. There is rarely such an easy escape from the raw flagellation of its absence.

Cold. Standing on a football pitch in the snow aged 11. back in the changing rooms, unable to untie my laces with my numbed fingers. Standing on the exposed terraces watching football aged 41. Standing in a field today. And various points in between. I read Solzhenitsyn in a chilling bed-sit in Bedford in 1980. Maybe the hint of empathy informed my memory.

You will have your own memories of coldness. Coldness which draws icicles slowly and painfully through your veins.

I froze for about 8 hours today. I have been home for almost 6 hours. Still my body is cold inside. Like a chicken korma taken from the freezer and placed into the auto-defrost of the microwave.

I am very slowly thawing from the outside. My inner being is still chilled, immobile and inanimate. It will take a while to melt and return to the warmth of life.

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