Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Sirens in the Night-time

There was another winter weather advisory last night - snow storms and strong winds. For several months now Vermont has been breaking records for the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the State. Because the snow isn't melting we have several feet on the ground and the trails through our woods are almost impassable.

Karla, my beautiful Mexican friend, was very worried when she learnt we were moving to Vermont. Did we know about "de Narcos", she asked. Vermont, she had heard, was chock-full of crack labs and drug dealers.

Since moving here in May 2014, the only State Troopers (cops) we have seen are parked near Stop signs to catch the people who don't stop, and parked on roadside verges to catch the drivers who are speeding. They're nice guys who spend a lot of time in their cars.

Last night I was woken, just after falling asleep, by the sound of police sirens. Lots of police sirens. A half-thought passed through my sleep-fuddled mind: isn't it great to not live in the city anymore. When we were based in Cambridge, MA, the fire station was at the end of our road and every night was filled with the sounds of emergency vehicles. In Cambridge I would go back to sleep because the sirens were normal, but now we're the last house before the road peters out into a winter car parking area and there has never been a need for the police to come here.

I hoped my neighbors were safe, I hoped there wasn't an electrical emergency, I hoped there hadn't been a car crash...

I rang our nearest (and dearest) neighbors, who were fine.
I checked our electrics, which were fine.
I looked out the window at the flashing blue lights and listened to the sirens wailing.
And then I thought, 'de narcos'. Why else would there be so many cops? So many cars? My imagination, already warmed up by my early-sleep-dreaming, ran ahead: right now the police would be intercepting a drug deal and 'de narcos' would be running through the cover of the forest to wreak havoc upon my house and family, because where else would they go when a blizzard was blowing and the temperatures were well below freezing?

I'm not easily frightened. Most weeknights I'm here alone with the children. I have escorted snakes out of our downstairs loo, chased mice from the cellar, given the raccoon his marching orders when he took up a position in the tree outside our kitchen window. When we've lived in cities (too many cities to list here) I have worked with people at the margins of society: the dispossessed, homeless, unemployable, drug addicted and mentally ill. I've spent time with those we label as 'scary' and 'dangerous' and I've always been committed to listening to the voices of the broken people who stand behind the scary 'bogeymen' our society makes out of them.

But, last night, I was terrified at the thought of a whole tribe of 'de narcos' staggering across our blizzard-blasted meadow while the police stared hopelessly at 'de narco's' abandoned cars. I phoned 911...

... which might sound extreme to anyone except the person who answered the phone.

'What is your emergency?' asked the woman with the Vermont accent.
'I don't know if it is an emergency,' I began.
'Oh, you're at 122 Mountain Road, aren't you,' she said, as though we'd just bumped into one another at the supermarket. Either her computer had immediately tracked the number and location of the phone I was using, or we had already met and she recognized my English accent.
'Yeah, there are lots of police cars outside my house,' I began, wondering if she might understand my sudden fear of 'de narcos'.
'There are,' she reassured me, 'You need to call the State Troopers,' She gave me their number.

The state troopers' office was expecting my call.
'Sorry to disturb you,' the telephonist said to me, which was a bit weird because I was about to say the same thing to her.
She explained a skier had got lost on the mountain. When he phoned 911 his cell phone signal showed he was lost on our land. The police cars were blaring their sirens and flashing their lights so that he could use them as a beacon.
'Is there anything I can do to help?' I asked.
'Switch on your house lights.'
I switched on every spot light, lamp and light switch in our house until we were bright as a Christmas tree and then I phoned the State Troopers back to find out if they needed anything else: tea, coffee, cookies, a warm fire, access to broadband...
They were fine, she told me, they were warm in their cars with their engines running.

My bedroom is on the third floor and looks out towards the woods and the river. I stood there for a while, still in my pyjamas, imagining the poor skier lost in the blizzard. Someone was shining a light in the area where the river creates a boundary to our land, and I imagined the cop wandering along by the edge of the water hoping he wouldn't find a body.

After a while, I phoned the State Trooper again. The telephonist didn't seem quite as pleased to hear from me this time.
'How is the search going?' I asked.
'We're not searching,' she said, and my heart sank. For the skier to have been so close to getting off the mountain and to have not made it. For the skier to have died in our forest, so close to our house.
'I'm so sorry.' The lump in my throat made my voice sound hoarse. 'I've been watching the guy out there and I've been praying and... and... that's just awful.'
'We don't have anyone out there searching,' repeated the phone operator. 'There's no point to us sending our men out in this weather: it would be like hunting for a needle in a haystack. They're ordered to sit in their cars and to wait for the skier to come to them.'

I decided the light I was watching must be the skier. I described his location and the cops brought their cars further up our driveway and parked so their lights angled across the meadow. I stood in the upstairs window, praying and hoping and watching the light pause and flicker and pause and move. Occasionally I checked on the girls, who were sleeping through the whole thing. After a while, I became convinced the light was a reflection from the police cars and I realized I should go downstairs and tell the cops I had been wasting their time. Before I did that, I decided to check on the light myself: if I put on my snow shoes, I could walk across the meadow to the source of the light and find out if it was the skier or a reflection. When you've been scared of the nightmare monster of 'de narcos' parading towards your house, the thought of the forest in a blizzard at night holds no real fear. The cops had been ordered to stay in their cars so there was no-one to help but me and I know the trails down to the forest pretty well. I changed into winter clothes, put on my coat and hat and scarf, picked up my snowshoes and was just letting the cop parked closest to my house know where I was going when the light cleared the forest.
From my whoops and cheers, the skier might have thought he was arriving at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The cop just clicked on his radio and said, 'He's coming out now.'
The man who reached us was in his 60s.
'Been a long day,' commented the cop.
'Yeah,' said the man.
'You cold?' asked the cop.
'No.' The man clicked off one ski with edge of his ski pole. 'My kit's ok for this weather.'
'Hypothermic?' asked the cop.
'No. Just a bit tired,' said the skier.
'Can I get you anything?' I asked, and repeated the list I'd offered to the cops earlier - coffee, tea, whisky, cheese and biscuits, a blazing fire, use of a phone...
'I'm fine,' said the man, taking off his other ski.
'Give you a lift to your car?' asked the cop.
'Thanks,' said the man.

I watched them drive away and, one by one, switched off the lights in my house. I checked on the girls, who were still sleeping, and slowly undressed.
There's something about prayers coming true which always makes me cry.
And there's something about Vermonters which means that whatever happens and however bad it might be, they'll make the minimum of fuss with the minimum of words and then work out how they're going to drive back home.

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