Chapter no 28 – Permafrost

The Midnight Library

e surface air temperatures in Svalbard were warming at twice the global rate. Climate change was happening faster here than almost anywhere on Earth.

One woman, wearing a purple woollen hat pulled down over her eyebrows, talked about witnessing one of the icebergs doing a somersault –something that happened apparently because the warming waters had dissolved it from beneath, causing it to become top heavy.

Another problem was that the permafrost on the land was thawing, soening the ground, leading to landslides and avalanches that could destroy the wooden houses of Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard.

ere was also a risk of bodies surfacing in the local cemetery.

It was inspiring, being among these scientists who were trying to discover precisely what was happening to the planet, trying to observe glacial and climatic activity, and in so doing to inform, and to protect life on Earth.

Back on the main boat, Nora sat quietly in the dining area as everyone oered sympathy for the bear encounter. She felt unable to tell them she was grateful for the experience. She just smiled politely and did her best to avoid conversation.

is life was an intense one, without compromise. It was currently minus seventeen degrees, and she had nearly been eaten by a polar bear, and yet maybe the problem with her root life had partly been its blandness.

She had come to imagine mediocrity and disappointment were her destiny.

Indeed, Nora had always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.

For instance, her grandfather on her mother’s side was called Lorenzo Conte. He had le Puglia – the handsome heel in the boot of Italy – to come to Swinging London in the 1960s.

Like other men in the desolate port town of Brindisi, he’d emigrated to Britain, exchanging life on the Adriatic for a job at the London Brick Company. Lorenzo, in his naivety, had imagined having a wonderful life –making bricks all day, and then of an evening he would rub shoulders with

e Beatles and walk arm-in-arm down Carnaby Street with Jean Shrimpton or Marianne Faithful. e only problem was that, despite its name, the London Brick Company wasn’t actually in London. It was based sixty miles north in Bedford, which, for all its modest charms, turned out not as swinging as Lorenzo would have liked. But he made a compromise with his dreams and settled there. e work may not have been glamorous, but it paid.

Lorenzo married a local English woman called Patricia Brown, who was also getting used to life’s disappointments, having exchanged her dream of being an actress for the mundane, daily theatre of the suburban housewife, and whose culinary skills were forever under the ghostly shadow of her dead Puglian mother-in-law and her legendary spaghetti dishes, which, in Lorenzo’s eyes, could never be surpassed.

ey had a baby girl within a year of getting married – Nora’s mother –and they called her Donna.

Donna grew up with her parents arguing almost continually, and had consequently believed marriage was something that was not only inevitable, but also inevitably miserable. She became a secretary at a law firm, and then a communications ocer for Bedford council, but then she’d had an experience which was never really discussed, at least not with Nora. She’d experienced some kind of breakdown – the first of several – that caused her to stay at home, and, although she recovered, she never went back to work.

ere was an invisible baton of failure her mother had passed down, and Nora had held it for a long time. Maybe that was why she had given up on so many things. Because she had it written in her DNA that she had to fail.

Nora thought of this as the boat chugged through the Arctic waters and gulls – black-legged kittiwakes, according to Ingrid – flew overhead.

On both sides of her family there had been an unspoken belief that life was meant to fuck you over. Nora’s dad, Geo, had certainly lived a life that

seemed to miss its target.

He had grown up with only a mother, as his dad had died of a heart attack when he was two, cruelly hiding somewhere behind his first memories. Nora’s paternal grandmother had been born in rural Ireland but emigrated to England to become a school cleaner, struggling to bring in enough money for food, let alone anything approaching fun.

Geoff had been bullied early on in life but had grown big and broad enough to easily put those bullies in their place. He worked hard and proved good at football and the shot put and, in particular, rugby. He played for the Bedford Blues youth team, becoming their best player, and had a shot at the big time before a collateral ligament injury stopped him in his tracks. He then became a PE teacher and simmered with quiet resentment at the universe. He forever dreamed of travel, but never did much of it beyond a subscription to National Geographic and the occasional holiday to somewhere in the Cyclades – Nora remembered him in Naxos, snapping a picture of the Temple of Apollo at sunset.

Maybe that’s what all lives were, though. Maybe even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same. Acres of disappointment and monotony and hurts and rivalries but with flashes of wonder and beauty. Maybe that was the only meaning that mattered. To be the world, witnessing itself. Maybe it wasn’t the lack of achievements that had made her and her brother’s parents unhappy, maybe it was the expectation to achieve in the first place. She had no idea about any of it, really. But on that boat she realised something. She had loved her parents more than she ever knew, and right then, she forgave them completely.

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