Cold Blooded

There was nothing else for it. I pushed myself into the pile of ice that Glen had tipped onto the sidewalk and tried to get comfortable for the night. The weather bureau was predicting sub-zero temperatures overnight and a heavy frost in the morning. There was no chance the ice would melt.

The soothing cold of the ice slowed my heart rate. My worries unwound as cool blood pulsed into my brain with each measured heartbeat.

Being a kitchen hand at a cafe in suburban Canberra wasn’t a great job. I wasn’t sorry that the arse-hat who owned it went broke. I hated schnitzel Tuesday and making fifty bowls of chips a night.

But he had invested in a proper industrial kitchen. And the second-rate chef, Glen, made sure there was a good old-fashioned hierarchy. Being the lowest of the low meant I had to stay late and clean up. When everyone was gone, and after I’d screwed up my eyes and cleaned the hot ovens with hydrochloric acid, I slid into the generous cool room, closed the door, and relaxed in the cold dark.

That apartment sized freezer made it the best job I’d ever had. But it was taken from me that night. The freezer had been turned off and the door had been propped open to slow the buildup of mildew. All the stock that could be sold had been sold. The rest was in a dumpster. Even the ice had been tipped onto the footpath.

My mother used to say that she remembered me trying to climb into the freezers at supermarkets when I was a toddler. Those were the old-style ones where frozen goods were presented to buyers in a frost lined trough filled with cardboard packs of fish filetsfillets and tubs of Neapolitan ice cream.

I complained about being too warm growing up and threw off constricting heavy woolen jumpers in winter at the first chance I got.

After child me begged my mother to let me roll in a pile of hail that had pooled on the footpath on the way to our local shops, I’d never told anyone about what made me happy. I learnt disapproval easily and early.

And as I got older, I also learnt to camouflage my needs, like my teenaged friends with un-obvious desires or frowned upon addictions. Even though I yearned for cold and dreamed of running away to the arctic, I got by in my teens by stealing time in my parents’ chest freezer, the pride of the house, when they went out to dinner.

I never wanted to know why I craved the cold. As far as I was concerned, I was just built that way, and I didn’t care to change. Even if it made a marriage, career, and children impossible.

Ice on a street wasn’t my preferred sleeping place, but the bar had shut quickly, and I couldn’t make other arrangements. I was kind of excited to be sleeping rough again, even if it was only in an inner north suburb of the nation’s Capital. I pushed myself into the ice. It felt even colder than Glen’s cool room. I drifted off into a deep sleep.

I was woken by a sharp prod on my foot, and a high-pitched scream. I felt a hot spot on my left heel. Someone had started to pull on the foot which must have slipped out of my ice bed.

“Don’t do that, we should leave it for the police.”

“But he might still be alive. Maybe we can help.”

There was another hand on my foot. It was pulling down my sock and gently feeling my ankle.

“No, he’s pretty cold. There’s not much we can do. Let’s just call the police.”

I needed to get out of there. I tensed and un-tensed my muscles. I knew from experience that a deep cool sleep could make my movements stilted when I woke up, and I didn’t want to jerk about like Frankenstein’s monster when I first emerged from the ice pile.

My graceful exit from the embrace of my ice bed was greeted by another scream.

“Umm, hi. It’s okay. I was just fooling around, hiding from my mates.” I looked down at my tatty jeans and cheap cotton windcheater. The ice hadn’t melted, so they weren’t soaked with water. No one could believe that someone would sleep out overnight in jeans and a thin top,so it was plausible that I’d only been there a couple of minutes.

A young woman in active wear, with a pink viscose headband and gloves, stared back at me, phone in one hand dog lead in the other. She looked uncertainly at an older woman dressed in a more dignified manner, who was standing just to my left. The dog, a generic brown fluff ball, just sniffed the ice.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” said the older woman. “Your foot was very cold.”

“Nah, I’m fine.”

“So I shouldn’t call the police?” The younger woman was concentrating on the older one, not me. The older woman had gray hair, a thick jumper, long red woolen scarf, and woolen pants. Who has woolen pants anymore? I thought. She took a step towards me and without asking for permission, put her hot hand on my forehead.

“I work at the hospital,” she said, as if that excused anything that she might do next. I twisted away from her hand, and she grimaced.

“You should really see a doctor,” she said, looking me over with light blue eyes. “We could call an ambulance for you.”

“You’re being very kind,” I said. “But I’m really all right. Just a bit of a practical joke. My friends will be along soon looking for me, I expect.” Of course, I had no friends, but I was hoping that the conversation wouldn’t go on long enough for the old duck to find out.

“You’re as cold as ice,” she responded. “I hate the cold. It’s the source of most illness in winter, you know.” I looked at her thick jumper, pants, scarf, and heavy leather boots. I could see that she did indeed hate the cold and was determined to defeat it by any means possible.

I turned to her companion with acrylic cold protection. “Look, I’m really grateful that you are both so concerned for me, but I’ll be alright. I promise.” I started to walk away. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I charted a path that didn’t involve trying to barge past the two women and possibly inflaming their concern for me by brushing a cold limb against their insulated bodies.

I felt a warm and surprisingly strong hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I really must insist,” said the older woman. “Narelle, call an ambulance. Young man, if you’re worried about the cost, I’ll pay for the ambulance. But we really need to get you to a doctor. People who let their core temperature drop as low as you have can die, you know.”

At that point, I started to run. I knew I wouldn’t get far before my legs warmed up and cramped. But I didn’t think that I had to go very far to get away from Narelle’s bossy companion. Narelle might have been able to outpace me, but she didn’t really look like she was that interested.