It’s 2am and the guy next door is going to the ice machine. I turn over stickily and listen to the scrape of his front door over the carpet, the footsteps padding along the hall and the mutter of the processor as it reads his card. In my mind’s eye I watch him, unshaven in a singlet and once-white shorts, a dressing gown slung over his shoulders for the sake of a propriety he only dimly feels. His eyes are fogged with lack of sleep; forgetting the surveillance, as he waits he scratches his balls. When they first put the cameras in, I remember how angry everyone was, thinking of how they would rub themselves, squeeze their spots or pick their noses in the late-night corridors when no one was around. They imagined the security guards laughing at them, seeing them the next morning with a mocking glint in their eye. It was almost a campaign, but it’s so quick, how everyone forgets. The ice comes with a rattle, shocking him awake, and I wonder why I’m so unfair about someone I’ve never even seen. He slides the plastic tray out and back and shuffles past my door to his flat.
When I was young I didn’t understand ice machines: only Americans had them. Ice cubes to me came in plastic trays that you filled from the tap and put in the freezer shelf in the top of the fridge. I never understood why you needed a machine to do it. On the summer afternoons that seemed hot then, I would fill a pint glass with the cubes and stick my face into it, breathing in the coolness that was more than I could stand. Sometimes they wouldn’t come out however much you bent the tray and you had to resort to the hot tap on the base and swearing. My mother had the knack, but of ice cubes she was an acolyte. She used to eat them every evening, sitting curled up over the tea towel with the tray and her novel on the kitchen counter, crunching, and I knew that no one could disturb her, not even me. Watching her, quiet and serious, flicking the cubes out with the ease of long practice, I suppose I thought that Americans had no patience to learn such skills. Not for them the hard path, the study and the mastery, not for they who had the money to do otherwise. When I was very young I even admired their thoughtless ease, their carelessness, as the machines whirred and sighed their fumes into the warming air.
Even with the air conditioning it’s too hot to sleep. I turn onto my back and watch the colours of the adverts on the tower opposite reflected onto the wall above my bed. The soundtrack is loud enough that even through quintuple glazing I can feel it, the base reverberating through my spine like the treatments the carers nag me to buy. Very faintly sometimes I think I can hear voices, and though I don’t know if they’re part of the soundtrack I like to think they’re the crowd. I know there are crowds down there, even though all I can see are the lights from the other towers and the orange sky. When I first moved here I used to try to watch them, but on the twenty-first floor, you’re just too high up. I can’t walk far these days, but if I have to I can make the stairs in forty minutes so my insurers said it was alright. ‘Risk adverse’ it says on my file. That always makes me laugh.
There was a time when they said more about me than that. There was a time when my file was pages thick, when they tapped my phone and read my mail and even, for a glimmer of a moment, thought me important. In the days when I was young, then middle aged, and spoke from platforms about the power of the people, done up in scarves against the winter that was not quite cold enough, even then. I spoke and they cheered, I worked and they responded, and somehow in a way I still don’t quite understand the watched pot never boiled, and now here I am aged in the dimness with the crowd far away from me, spending money behind their gas masks in the poisonous night.
There’s a wasp in here somewhere, I don’t know how they get in when I haven’t opened the door for days, but they always do. I can hear it buzzing against the window, knocking itself out in its desperation to get at the screens and the lights it thinks are flowers. A documentary I saw said they live off the dregs in Coke cans. I suppose they think they’re flowers, too. It swoops low around the room and despite the heat I pull the damp sheet over my ear. My wallscreen flicks on for the hourly news. Someone (not my son, surely, he would have thought it unwise to encourage me) helpfully set it for current events when I moved in and I’ve never worked out how to change it. They’re talking about the Gulf Stream again, trying to reassure their viewers that something will be done in time. It won’t turn off, we’ll find a way, it will be alright. Maybe they believe it, those newscasters with nothing behind their eyes. Sometimes I believe them and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes all I think of is snow.
I’m not really old enough to have known snow, but I dream of it. The crisp white blanket, freezing, the air so cold your words come out like icicles. The sky hard as jet, the rivers still, the trees silhouetted stark against the sky. The sun goes down pink and red in fire and on the black background the white snow comes whirling; whirling, whirling, drifting down like judgement on a frozen world. I remember how people used to talk of the quietness, of waking in the morning with everything muffled and only a bird cheeping on the window cill to show it had not all ended in the night. And I remember that now there are no birds.
It’s getting light outside, behind the haze. The room is filled with the wallscreen burble, the swish of the traffic flying past outside and the shrill cries of the adverts. I won’t sleep but I close my eyes anyway, like the carers tell me to. I close my eyes against all of it and I wait for the ice to come.