Heating Disorder is the second of the 2011 Building Inspector series of short stories. Divine Intervention, the third story, has been chosen for publication by AMBIT Magazine.
She knows he’s wondering if she’s the starving or the vomiting kind and he seems rude enough to actually ask. He walks behind her when she shuffles into the living room in her massive tiger paw slippers and she can feel his eyes through the fabric of her track suit tracksuit bottoms that hangs in a pouch over her nonexistent bum. It’s freezing. He’s rubbing his hands to warm them up.
The living room is tiny and looks under-furnished even with her upright piano covering most of one wall.
He kneels down in front of one of the radiators and raises his eyebrows as he taps with a Leatherman tool on a length of pipe that leads to it. He is about to say something when his mobile goes off in the back pocket of his jeans, an angry MIDI version of William Tell. He gets up with a grunt, checks the caller ID and walks into the kitchen.
'This won’t take long.'
He closes the door behind him. She can hear a string of muffled orders and doesn’t get any of the content but for him shouting 'You tell me, you're the fucking plumber!' to conclude the phone call. He grimaces and shoves his mobile back into his pants as he comes out of the kitchen.
'Now. Looks like you’ve really messed up those radiators. A lot of people do. You know there's a spring in a thermostatic valve? When you only turn it up a tiny notch, as I’m sure you have done to keep that utility bill in check, it will fur up after some time. What you'll have to do now, and see, I’ll do it for you, is open every radiator valve in your flat to the stop, hoping for the springs to relax and shake off the limescale. Mind, this might take a few hours. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have to have the valves replaced, which cost about fifty apiece. Anyway, this is my card. Call me if the radiators stay cold.'
He's reaching for the phone in his back pocket on his way out.
She’s huddled on her sofa chair, a duvet tightly wrapped around her legs. She notices that ice flowers have started to form on the window panes. She’s never seen any before but thinks she remembers them from fairy tales about destitute wood-dwellers whose barefoot children spend their days collecting firewood and dodging wolves. It’s getting dark outside, the street lamps are coming on. The deserted street looks lovely in its lacey frost pattern frame but almost too much so, a bit too Little Lord Fauntleroy perhaps. She’s quietly annoyed with her inability to just take things as they are, her allowing mediocre fiction to seep into her perception of reality in such a disruptive manner. Like people who find sunsets tacky because they’ve seen too many postcards. It’s not snowing today. She’d heard someone say it was too cold for snow, but she’s not sure if it can be too cold for snow.
She bends over the armrest, careful not to expose any skin, reaching for the stack of papers on the floor that she’s been trying to revise for days. The cold has exhausted her. Her body seems reluctant to allocate energy for memorising content when keeping it at working temperature is such a task.
Half an hour later she finds the light in the living room to be slightly dimmer and softer than before even though she hasn’t switched off any lamps. Something’s changed. She realises the window panes are now completely frozen over, white as alabaster glass.
Intrigued, she wriggles out of the duvet to take a closer look. She’s surprised to find what covers the glass doesn’t look much like ice – it’s more like very dense snow, like the kind that grows in the freezer. She presses the tip of her index finger against the pane, expecting the ice to thaw underneath. The delicate frost pattern reminds her of a damask tablecloth, and indeed it has a soft, fabric-like texture and doesn’t melt but becomes shiny as she gently rubs it.
A clang emanating from the radiator under the window makes her jump. There, again, a loud knocking in the pipes and a faint gurgling, splashing, trickling sound from the bloodstream of the building as the radiators start to fill up with hot water. Her body goes slack with relief. She slides her hand between the radiator’s ribs and leaves it there for a moment, enjoying the warmth.
She puts her index finger back on the spot where she had tried to rub off the snow. She feels it change, getting softer and softer, and as it reaches the texture of sherbet, it yields to the tip of her finger. She pushes further until the middle phalanx is fully immersed. Incredulity of St. Thomas, she thinks with a giggle, the Caravaggio painting of a baffled St. Thomas sticking his finger deep into the chest wound of the newly resurrected Jesus.
As she contemplates the improbability of her situation she feels the cold night air painfully cutting into her finger. Only now does she realise that she’s penetrated the glass. She slowly pulls out the digit and peeps through the hole into the silent, lamp-lit street, icy air blowing into her face.
When she comes back from the kitchen with a glass of cheap brandy she notices the hole has grown to twice its original size and is now distorted like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The panes of the other two windows are milky white and slick with thaw. She presses her palm against the pane of the second one and immediately ice and glass melt away, leaving an even larger hole. She moves close to the third, breathing against it until it begins to dissolve.
She walks into her bedroom and starts to pack.