We know we’re in for a story when a new email from Susan Macks pops up. Susan is Professor of Gateways and the Multiverse at the University of Connecticut. She was back home when the pandemic struck. Her investigations into London’s fraying temporal boundaries have been continued online.
It hasn’t slowed her down. She has pieced together a trail around the last sightings and text messages of Gail Henry, a Canonbury resident who vanished in the snow over a decade ago.
Susan fills me in over Zoom. It is early morning Eastern time, almost midday GMT. An ocean apart, we’ve both made coffee. (Even on a laptop screen, the pastries from Susan’s local bakery easily outshine my Tesco Metro ones).
What follows is PoL’s re-telling of what Susan calls ‘a major crossing between London’s layered worlds’.
The first few days of February 2009 saw heavy snowfall across much of Western Europe. London wasn’t used to it. Transport ground to a halt, schools closed, nobody could get to the office. ‘Snow Day’ was declared. For a couple of days, parts of London had the atmosphere of an impromptu frost fair.
For Gail Henry, a day off work’s unbearable office politics was a relief. Gail’s Canonbury home was her sanctuary. It was a nondescript flat in a nondescript low-rise block, but she loved the area, loved her kitchen with its window onto the New River Walk.
The New River, as the info boards will tell you, is neither new nor a river. It is an aqueduct, built in the 17th Century to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire. It still flows, culverted mostly, but breaking ground here and there on its way through North London: behind a row of houses in Haringey; at the Stoke Newington reservoirs with their famous castle; a recently cleaned up stretch in Clissold Park.
In Canonbury there’s the New River Walk, with its ornamental canal, boardwalks and weeping willows. In Spring and Summer it is alive with birdsong and blossom. All year round, Gail walked its winding paths. A little skein of escape between the traffic; though the sound of the city was always just beyond the trees.
But in the snow of that morning, the city was silent. Gail was up early, the sound of her front door waking a neighbour. Nobody else had ventured out yet. The streets were like a new world.
The New River was frozen, the trees laden with snow. Here, the silence contained her. Her and the ducks she watched scooting on the surface of the stream.
Gail noticed a round melted patch in the ice. Something was warming the water. She couldn’t figure it out, and was about to turn away when she noticed a glimmer on the stream bed. Her curiosity piqued, she got down on her knees in the snow and looked closer.
The stream was shallow. Something stood out among the grimy twigs and leaves. A smooth black stone. Gail took off her mitten, shoved her coat-sleeve back, and plunged her hand into the water. The stream was warm, and when she wrapped her fingers around it, the stone was warmer still.
She lifted the stone out and held it on her palm. It was a oval-shaped. She would have said it was obsidian, like the volcanic glass her sister had brought back from holiday, except its smoothness was strange. It didn’t seem to reflect light. There were no signs of the colourful shimmer she had seen. Only a deep and total darkness.
Then she saw something that made her heart skip. The hole in the ice was closing, fast enough to follow. The edges of the water crystallised, and within moments the dark water was only a tiny circle, before this too froze and closed. It wasn’t possible. A jolt of unreality, like a dream.
She looked round, and saw that the snow-covered wooden walkway she had stepped off moments earlier was gone. So was the little brick watchman’s hut. Gail turned slowly in the snow. The houses through the trees were gone. The trees themselves, changed. There was no ordered garden walk, and as she turned full circle she saw that the New River had vanished, too.
So, she thought. I am dreaming.
She was stood in an endless white forest. Dark trees with snow-laden branches led into the distance all around her. The air was still and cold. There was no sign of birds, or any other life. Only the warmth of the stone, which spread now from her hand, through her arm and into her body.
One thing hadn’t changed. The land sloped gently upwards, just as the streets to the northwest of the stream had. Gail followed the incline, her shoes falling into deep, untouched snow. Soon, away to her left, she noticed a break in the trees. A line; a path. She stepped towards it, then stopped.
A sudden realisation had terrified her: she wasn’t alone in the forest. A shadow had stepped from behind a tree and then vanished.
Not knowing what else to do, she walked on. She felt she must make it to the path. Then, in the trees on the other side, she saw another figure. This one wasn’t hiding. It was staring right at her.
Gail might have screamed. She let go of the stone, and its warmth left her body. She watched it land at her feet and melt an oval in the snow. When she looked up, she saw she was in a white garden. She recognised one of the large, posh houses on the other side of the New River.
Gail no longer thought she was dreaming. She gladly left the stone on its soggy patch of lawn, and climbed a small tree to leap over the garden wall into the street.
Other people were awake now, wandering aimlessly, making snowmen. Gail made her way back along the Walk. The stream where she had found the stone was still frozen. She didn’t notice her mitten still lying in the snow.
She got back to her flat and climbed into bed. She made a cup of tea but didn’t drink it, leaving it on her bedside table to go cold. She texted her sister. A long series of texts that began ‘This is going to sound crazy but…’
She couldn’t get warm, layering her cover with blankets. She tried to sleep but couldn’t. She watched films on her laptop. She sketched drawings in her diary of broad-chested figures with starry eyes and thorny bodies, standing among dark trees. She posted one to her Facebook with the caption, ‘what do these seem like to you?’
At 3pm she sent one more text to her sister. She made herself a sandwich, ate half of it, packed a small backpack, left it on her kitchen table. Left her phone there, too. She wrapped up in her warmest clothes.
Late in the afternoon, as it was getting dark, a child got his mother’s attention. A woman was clambering over the wall into the garden of one of the large houses north-west of the New River Walk.
- Candidate: The Canonbury White Forest
- Type: Multiverse infringement
- Status: Unknown
All photos of Canonbury in the snow, and the featured image, by Pjldn