An extract from Dani Redd’s debut novel, The Arctic Curry Club, published by Avon on 9th December 2021
As the plane flew further north, I leaned over Ryan to look out of the window.
‘There’s nothing to see – it’s already dark,’ he said apologetically.
I pressed my face against the glass (not too hard, I’d worry about it cracking), and squinted down at the faint outlines of clouds below me.
‘I wonder if we’ll see the Northern Lights,’ I said.
He smiled at me.
‘We’ll go out on snowmobiles and find them.’
‘What if I can’t ride a snowmobile?’
Ryan squeezed my hand.
‘Of course you’ll be able to. It’s easy – just like a quad bike.’
I’d never ridden a quad bike before either, but I decided not to say anything. Ryan thinks that I can be quite down on myself, and I wanted to be on my best behaviour for our Big Adventure. He’d worked unbelievably hard to get this fellowship and I wasn’t going to ruin it by being negative.
‘I’m looking forward to checking out all the restaurants,’ I told him. ‘There’s one with a greenhouse full of plants in. It serves whale and reindeer.’
‘Let’s go this weekend!’
I was about to reply, but was cut off by the loudspeaker.
‘We are now beginning our descent into Longyearbyen. Please return to your seats and make sure your seatbelts are securely fastened.’
The strange plummeting sensation in my stomach didn’t just come with the drop in altitude.
I’d laughed when Ryan told me he’d been offered a fellowship monitoring polar bears in the closest settlement to the North Pole. But he hadn’t been joking – he showed me the email and told me how cool it would be if I went with him. I’d visualised the two of us huddled in a smoke-filled hut, clubbing seals for breakfast, speaking to nobody but each other until we went mad and started eating our shoes. He reassured me that Longyearbyen was a proper little town, with a supermarket, hotels, pubs and restaurants. Slowly, it had stopped seeming like a crazy idea.
Of course, there are countless examples of the idea of a thing not matching up to the reality. Like dresses you order online, worn by much thinner models. Like attempts to make intricate novelty cakes. Like communism . . .
‘Maya? Are you alright?’
Ryan was looking at me, eyes wide with concern.
I forced a smile.
‘Yep. Fine. Completely fine.’
‘I can tell you’re anxious. It’s completely understandable. If it makes you feel better, I’m nervous too.’
‘Sure. I’m dragging my gorgeous girlfriend to the northernmost town on earth, and I don’t want her to regret coming. I’m starting a new job and I’m worried I won’t be as experienced as everyone else.’
‘You’ll be amazing. They’re lucky to have you,’ I reassured him.
‘And I’m lucky you agreed to come with me.’
He extended his arm and I nestled into his shoulder. My bum’s so big that sitting down we’re similar heights, and it actually hurt my neck a little, but I was reassured by his warmth and solidity.
The plane juddered as the wheels hit the asphalt and then taxied to a halt. The seatbelt signs went off and we got up and grabbed our bags. Queuing in front of me was a family with two children, both of whom were already moaning.
‘It’s going to be fun,’ the mum said, in a tired voice.
‘Fun’ was one of the most misleading words in the English language. It had connotations with crazy golf and corporate away days, with parties where you stood in the corner, ears ringing, wondering when it was socially acceptable to leave.
The kids didn’t buy it either. They started moaning about Disneyland, of all places.
I followed the family down the aisle towards the front of the plane, trying to remember the images of Longyearbyen I’d seen online. Colourful wooden houses against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Towering icebergs with deep blue undersides. The Northern Lights undulating in green and purple ribbons across the sky. Mugs of hot chocolate by a roaring fire. But the picture of the Arctic I had in my mind dissolved the minute I stepped outside the plane.
The cold hit me like a slap in the face and my legs nearly buckled with the shock. It was also completely dark, despite being three o’clock in the afternoon. I froze, both literally and figuratively.
‘Babe? We’re holding people up.’
I could hear the embarrassment in his voice as the people queueing behind him began to passive-aggressively grumble in several different languages. But there was no way of backing out now, for the choice had been made the moment I stepped onto the plane.
I forced myself down the stairs. The cold penetrated my down jacket in seconds. It lacerated my face. The insides of my nostrils felt like they were being sliced with tiny razors. Every country has a different scent – it’s normally the first thing you notice when you get off the plane. England smells like rain and concrete; bitter but fresh. When I went to Dubai last year, the air was swampy with humidity, infused with petrol fumes and moist vegetation. But here, I couldn’t smell anything at all.
Once we reached the bottom of the stairs, Ryan put his arm around me.
‘Fucking freezing, isn’t it? We should have worn our balaclavas.’
‘I couldn’t wear that on a plane, I’d be arrested,’ I said.
The skin on my face felt stiff, as if it was covered in a layer of frost. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was.
‘Quick, let’s get inside.’
We crunched through several inches of snow, past men in snowsuits who were unloading the luggage. Others were in vehicles surrounding the plane next to ours, shooting what was presumably de-icing fluid at it.
I glanced past the plane, hoping to see the scenery beyond the airport, but there was only darkness. Instead, I focussed my attention on the illuminated terminal building in front of us. Looking through the glass doors, I saw people (mostly bearded white guys) in puffy outdoor jackets and chunky snow boots gathered around a single luggage carousel.
When we stepped through the automatic doors the temperature rose so rapidly I groaned out loud in relief.
‘Wow. That was bracing,’ Ryan said.
‘You’re telling me.’
We glanced at each other. His cheeks were bright red and his eyes were streaming with the cold, but he was smiling. I found myself smiling back, and then we both began to laugh. I’m not sure why. The relief of being warm, perhaps . . . or maybe mild hysteria on my part. (Like, what the fuck we were doing here, really?) Still, at least we were in it together.