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Under Ice

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In a week dedicated to our Best Young Novelists, this compelling and sinister story by Iain Banks is free to read for a month. Part of Granta’s online archive, it was published in ‘Best of Young British Novelists 2’.

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Andy runs out across the ice. I am five years old and he is seven. Strathspeld is everywhere white; the sky is still and shining, hiding the sun in a dazzling, brilliant haze, its light somehow distanced by the intervening layer of high cloud overlooking a chill wilderness of snow. The mountain-tops are smothered, black crags violent spattered marks against that blankness; the hills and forests are blanketed too, the trees are frosted and the loch is hard and soft together, iced over then snowed upon. Here, beyond the gardens of the lodge and the woods and ornamental ponds, the loch narrows and becomes a river again, bending and funnelling and quickening as it heads towards the rocks and falls and the shallow gorge beyond. Usually from here you can hear the thunder of the falls in the distance but today there is only silence.

I watch Andy run out. I shout after him but I don't follow him. The bank on this side is low, only half a metre above the white plain of the snow-covered river. The grass and reeds around me are flattened under the sudden, overnight fall of snow. On the far side, where Andy is heading, the bank is tall and steep where the water has cut into the hill, removing sand and gravel and stones and leaving an overhang of earth and exposed, dangling tree roots; the dark gravel space under that ragged overhang is the only place I can see where there is no snow.

Andy is yelling as he runs, coat-tails flapping out behind him, gloved hands outspread, his head thrown back, the ear-flaps on his hat snapping and clapping like wings. He's almost half-way across and suddenly I go from being terrified and annoyed to being exhilarated, intoxicated; overjoyed. We were told not to do this, told not to come here, told to sledge and throw snowballs and make snowmen all we wanted, but not even to come near the loch and the river, in case we fell through the ice; and yet Andy came here after we'd sledged for a while on the slope near the farm, walked down here through the woods despite my protests, and then when we got here to the river bank I said well, as long as we only looked, but then Andy just whooped and jumped down onto the boulder-lumped white slope of shore and sprinted out across the pure flat snow towards the far bank. At first I'm angry at him, frightened for him, but now suddenly I get this rush of joy, watching him race out there into the cold level space of the stilled river, free and warm and vivacious in that smoothed and frozen silence.

I think he's done it, I think he's across the river and safe and there's a warm glow of vicarious accomplishment starting to well up within me, but then there's a cracking noise and he falls; I think he's tripped and fallen forward but he isn't lying flat on the snow, he's sunk up to his waist in it and there's a pool of darkness spreading on the whiteness around him as he struggles, trying to lever himself out, and I can't believe this is happening, can't believe Andy isn't going to jump free; I'm yelling in fear now, shouting his name, screaming out to him.

He struggles, turning round as he sinks deeper, chunks and edges of ice rearing into the air and making little puffs and fountains of snow as he tries to find purchase and push himself out. He's calling out to me now but I can hardly hear him because I'm screaming so hard, wetting my pants as I squeeze the screams out. He's holding his hand out to me, yelling at me, but I'm stuck there, terrified, screaming and I don't know what to do, can't think what to do, even while he's yelling at me to help him, come out to him, get a branch, but I'm petrified at the thought of setting foot on that white, treacherous surface and I can't imagine finding a branch, can't think what to do as I look one way towards the tall trees above the hidden gorge and the other along the shore of the loch towards the boat-house but there are no branches, there's only snow everywhere, and then Andy stops struggling and slips under the whiteness.

I stand still, quietened and numbed. I wait for him to come back up, but he doesn't. I step back, then turn and run, the clinging wetness round my thighs going from warm to cold as I race beneath the snow-shrouded trees towards the house.

I run into the arms of Andy's parents walking with the dogs near the ornamental ponds and it seems like an age before I can tell them what's happened because my voice won't work and I can see the fear in their eyes and they're asking, Where is Andrew? Where is Andrew? and eventually I can tell them and Mrs Gould gives a strange little shuddering cry and Mr Gould tells her to get the people in the house and phone for an ambulance and runs away down the path towards the river with the four Golden Labradors barking excitedly behind him.

I run to the house with Mrs Gould and we get everybody–my mum and dad and the other guests–to come down to the river. My father carries me in his arms. At the riverside we can see Mr Gould on his stomach out on the ice, pushing himself back from the hole in the river; people are shouting and running around; we head down the river towards the narrows and the gorge and my father slips and almost drops me and his breath smells of whisky and food. Then somebody calls out and they find Andy, round the bend in the river, down where the water reappears from a crust of ice and snow and swirls, lowered and reduced, round the rocks and wedged tree-trunks before the lip of the falls, which sound muted and distant today, even this close.

Andy's there, caught between a snow-covered tree trunk and an iced-over rock, his face blue-white and quite still. His father splashes deep into the water and pulls him out.

I start crying and bury my face in my father's shoulder.

The village doctor was one of the house guests; he and Andy's father hold the boy up, letting water drain from his mouth, then lay him down on a coat on the snow. The doctor presses on Andy's chest while his wife breathes into the boy's mouth. They look more surprised than anybody when his heart restarts and then he makes a gurgling noise in his throat. Andy is wrapped in the coat and rushed to the house, submerged to the neck in a warm bath and given oxygen when the ambulance arrives.

He'd been under the ice, under the water, for ten minutes or more. The doctor had heard about children, usually younger than Andy, surviving without air in cold water, but never seen anything like it.

Andy recovered quickly, sucking on the oxygen, coughing and spluttering in the warm bath, then being dried and taken to a warmed bed and watched over by his parents. The doctor was worried about brain damage, but Andy seemed just as bright and intelligent afterwards as he'd been before, remembering details from earlier in his childhood and performing above average in the memory tests the doctor gave him and even doing well in school when that started again after the winter break.

It was a miracle, his mother said, and the local newspaper agreed. Andy and I never did get properly told off for what happened, and he hardly ever mentioned that day to me unless he had to. His father didn't like talking about it much either and used to be slightly dismissive and jokey about it all. Mrs Gould gradually talked less about it.

Eventually it seemed it was only I who ever thought about that still, cold morning, recalling in my dreams that cry and that hand held out to me for help I could not, would not give, and the silence that followed Andy disappearing under the ice.

And sometimes I felt he was different, and had changed, even though I knew people changed all the time and people our age changed faster than most.

Even so, I thought on occasion there had been a loss; nothing necessarily to do with oxygen starvation but just as a result of the experience, the shock of his cold journey, slipping away beneath the grey lid of ice (and perhaps, I told myself in later years, it was only a loss of ignorance, a loss of folly and so no bad thing). But I could never again imagine him doing something as spontaneously crazy, as aggressively, contemptuously fate-tempting and unleashed as running out across the frozen ice, arms out, laughing.

***

‘Under Ice’ is an excerpt of the novel Complicity, published by Little, Brown in 1993. Copyright © Iain Banks 1993. Photo by Gavin Macfie

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Next week Granta’s first ever Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists will be published in English (the Spanish edition is already out and can be bought here). Read a list of the writers in the issue, or visit our iTunes page to hear the first of our podcasts related to the issue – an interview with Spanish author and art critic Javier Montes.

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