Roland Nevins adjusted the waistband of his shorts, rearranged his gut. There was a second band of flab down there these days, the skin a shade greyer than the rest of him. It was cold in his front room and goose pimples bumped beneath the liver spots.
“All bought and paid for, Rollie. Sign of a life well lived,” said Danny the Neck.
Danny had been there since 6AM, having drifted over from the festive lock-in at the Brown Cow. Waves of whiskey kept washing by, and Roland suspected his friend was there less for support and more to keep the hangover at bay for a few precious hours more.
“Life well lived,” he replied, his smile faint.
The sad thing was that his bulk wasn’t proof of anything beyond poor diet and exercise. A well-lived life would have seen his wife and daughter with him that morning rather than the neighbourhood alcoholic. It would have given him more than this inherited bungalow besieged by black-backed gulls. There had been times when he had been flush, it was true, times of high living and expensive dinners, but now he was stuck in an out-of-season seaside town, freighted with half-memories, mildew and adipose tissue.
Roland Nevins. King of the polar bears.
As he pulled on his towelling robe and hunted for flip-flops, Roland tried to count how often he’d done this event. The first time was in ’98, when Mira, his daughter, was still small enough to be swaddled and carried to the beach, her grandma fussing over her. There had been a few times he hadn’t taken part – six months in Pentonville, the aborted fresh start in Ibiza – but otherwise this had been a Boxing Day ritual every year since. At first it was a natural addition to the Christmas visit to his parents, and then a kind of remembrance after he moved alone into their empty home.
And even though the crowds were smaller, and the horizon was dominated by wind turbines and the sea a dirty brown, it was still a thrill as he strode across the promenade down to the shingle. Danny the Neck stumbled along behind him, wafting in and out of commentary.
“Will TV be there, do you think?” he asked, before breaking into a bronchial cough.
Roland scanned the crowd. No sign of media, although that didn’t mean much. Mira had explained the workings of these fancy new smartphones during the last of their civil conversations, and it seemed like every other person holding their device up could be a reporter from the local paper or one of those websites.
“Rollie!” A high-pitched squeal. Barbara Andersson. He had been to school with Babs, had spent his life bumping into her on shopping trips and hospital visits. She had never moved beyond the street of her birth and had the convict’s delight in seeing others come home. Babs was one of those women who would touch you instinctively and share local gossip without waiting for invitation.
“Your beard looks majestic, Rollie,” she said, shivering in her swimsuit. “Like a king of old.”
“I told him. He looks like Grizzly Adams,” said Danny. Barbara flinched when she noticed him, all too aware of the Neck’s reputation.
Aside from Barbara and Danny, there were only a few other familiar faces. Devon from the Cow was there (changing out of his barman’s clobber right there on the beach, a towel for modesty) and Winston with the yellow eyes, still drunk from the lock-in. Blinker, who used to be a policeman, and Turkish Dave. Fewer in number than previous years and older. Not many supporters, either. Blinker had brought his family with him, which was a relief since children generally made this event feel less futile, although the two boys were both sulky and clinging to their mother’s legs.
It wasn’t really their town any longer, Roland thought sadly. The Brown Cow was the last pub standing after The Dominion and Empire had given up the fight. People like Blinker and Devon were doing their level best to find work elsewhere, desperate to abandon the hopeless cases too rooted to escape.
Hard to say who it all belonged to now. The hotels along this part of the seafront all had ‘No Vacancy’ neon glowing in the windows beneath the fairy lights, but they weren’t welcoming holidaymakers, not anymore. Instead, the Home Office stacked each one with asylum seekers in lieu of alternative accommodation and placed security guards on the doors. Runaway people from faraway places – Eritrea, Uganda, Afghanistan, Ukraine. Roland knew what his neighbours thought of the situation, heard their gripes in almost every other conversation.
(“You should complain to the council,” Babs had said. “People respect you around here.”
“We should get paraffin and some matches,” Danny slurred one time. “Give them a proper welcome.”)
But why fight a losing battle? The tourists weren’t coming, not anymore, and the attractions grew shabbier year-on-year. They’d closed the crazy golf and the boating lake would be next. At least the hotels had found purpose, and the refugees a home, however frigid and temporary. Everything else was nostalgia and ritual.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the annual Boxing Day Polar Bear Plunge.” Turkish Dave was this year’s commentator, standing on a stepladder that had half-sunk in the sand. He had one of those portable speakers they use at street markets, although it seemed unnecessary when the throng was this sparse.
“Our rules are very simple. The polar bears need to line-up behind the markers and wait for my whistle. You can only take the plunge in your bathing suits. No everyday clothes, please – no t-shirts or trousers,” he said.
There was a groan at the back, some newcomer unused to the almost alpine conditions.
“You can walk or run into the water, but no diving – it’s not that deep. If you see anyone get into trouble, make some noise, point them out. We have lifeguards ready to help.”
Roland looked at the assembled support staff, jowly-looking men in Santa hats. He sent up a silent prayer that no-one needed them.
“Keep your heads above water. No horseplay. When we blow the whistle a second time, you must get out.”
That was smart, thought Roland. Last year, a foolhardy couple had tried to last more than 10 minutes out there, and an ambulance had been called.
“Now, if I could ask our polar bears to assemble. As a reminder, we are raising funds for the lifeboats…”
That raised a boo, from people so embittered they were offended at the idea of saving specific lives from rough seas. Roland shot the offenders a hard look, watched them go silent.
“…for the lifeboats,” continued Dave, “so please give generously in the buckets.”
Turkish Dave had done a decent enough job. Roland was pleased. He strode to the centre of the starting line, smiling as the others filed in behind him. Babs was there, jostling to be as close as she could, and Winston with the yellow eyes, breathing raggedly already. The collective noun for a pack of polar bears is a ‘celebration,’ but there wasn’t much to celebrate. Around 20 people in total, pink and vulnerable and exposed, and a fraction of what this event used to attract.
“All right,” echoed the speaker, feedback fizzing at the edges. “I am going to blow the whistle in 10… 9…”
Roland crouches into a sprinter’s pose, alive in the moment. He doesn’t move fast, he knows that, but people are generally happy to stand back and let him take the lead. He never has a heartbeat’s hesitation, never lets the anticipation of cold shock prevent him from experiencing it.
“8… 7… 6…”
For one intense instant, it feels like a bolt of lightning, each nerve ending suddenly alive and howling. Then your body compensates, redirecting blood flow to your core and away from the skin, pumping out dopamine to prevent a full shutdown.
“5… 4… 3...”
And the fact that he still does this, that people buy him pints in the Cow after and slap his back, is proof of something. He thinks of his ex-wife, his daughter, how proud of him they had been. That period of his life, when he was both father and son in parallel, was the best of times, he knows that now. It had to mean something that he could still do the plunge, could still show the world what he is capable of, despite everything it has taken from him.
“2… wait, wait, wait.”
Another group has arrived, latecomers. He hears Barbara’s angry tut, sees Danny the Neck try to remonstrate with them. It is a group from the beachfront hotel, younger than the polar bears by at least a decade, and darker, less vulnerable. They begin stripping, there on the beach, organising their clothes into neat piles on the pebbles. Men and boys who arrived by small dinghies, who risked drowning to get here, ready to face the sea again.
“It’s not right. They can’t swim in their underpants,” says Barbara, but the men move with determination and outnumber the organisers by three-to-one.
Roland sizes up the one he takes to be the ringleader. He is a big man, almost as tall as Roland himself, and built. There is a belly there, sure, but his arms and chest have a concentration to them, a tautness that speaks to years of hard labour. He has a beard, too, not as groomed and imposing as Roland’s perhaps, but capable of making a statement.
He senses the crowd is waiting for him to pass judgement, can see Turkish Dave pause, the microphone limp in his hand. There are far more bodies on the beach now, a full colour palette of skin tones, and none of the newcomers are laughing or jostling, none of them are drunk from the night before or doing this for a dare.
The ringleader turns and looks at him. There’s just this flash of connection, as Roland recognises the pleading in the man’s eyes, the urgency. He has a swirling pattern of old scar tissue on his chest, as though someone has taken a rake to a zen garden.
“Let’s go,” Roland shouts, turning back to the waves as they break upon the shore. “We’re catching our deaths out here.”
“OK. 3… 2… 1…”
The pack moves with him, ready for the plunge, holding its breath in unison.
After so much time, it feels like a celebration.