Eugene had been making digs for the previous hour. At lunch, I’d ordered beer while they’d had herbal tea; he’d insinuated my choice was governed by alcoholism. I’d tried to judo-flip him by agreeing, but it hadn’t really worked and, while I’d tried to enjoy my drink, he’d made it taste bitterer than it should. The snide comments masquerading as humour had continued as we walked through the frozen landscape. Nothing he said warranted offense without it making me look petty or over sensitive, yet each barb stuck home, tugging as Evka and Maria laughed, watching and wondering how I’d respond, knowing I’d look a fool if I bit. Increasingly, they spoke in Czech. As we trudged along the icy roads, I found myself walking further alone, ahead and on the other side of the road, excluded by their laughter.
We came to a lake and stood staring out across the scuffed white surface. Tyre tracks slewed far out into the middle of the lake, piles of slush crusting where the marks described a curve, the remains of the wheel-spinning skid of some thrill-seeking local. Someone had lit a fire at some point and black detritus was scattered across the ice.
“We need to go across,” said Eugene pointing to the far side. I noticed he was using English but wasn’t looking at me.
“Ok,” chimed the girls and began to make their way down the slope. Where the ice touched the bank, a thin membrane of water swam on the surface of the ice.
“Can’t we follow the road around?”
Eugene looked up and smiled.
“You’re not scared, are you?”
The girls laughed. I nodded.
“Yes, a little. Haven’t you seen The Omen? The second one.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” he laughed.
“It’s fine,” said Maria. “Look at the tracks. If a car can go on, you can.”
“How long ago was that, though? There’s water on the ice.”
Evka spoke without looking at me.
“You can take the road if you like. We’ll see you on the other side.”
She jumped off the bank and onto the lake, nearly slipping. They laughed. Eugene looked up. For once he seemed to be sympathetic.
“It’s six kilometres round, only one across. Seriously, it’s fine.”
He held out a gloved hand to help me down the bank. I took a deep breath and seized it.
After five feet or so, the ice became dry and fairly easy to walk on. It was covered in a crunching crust and not as slippery as I’d expected. I trudged after the other three who were chattering in Czech. The far side of the lake seemed a very long way off.
I tried not to look down as I walked; the ice was so solid that we might as well have been on land, but I dreaded seeing translucency. I could see that Eugene hadn’t been lying: the lake was very large and the road around it very long.
Eugene looked back and smiled.
“See, not so bad.”
I wondered how deep it was and realised that it made little difference; as long as it was deeper than me, I’d die. I tried not to think of what it would be like—the shock of the cold, the ice closing over, the light peering through, the first inhalation of frigid water…
We were about halfway across when we heard what sounded like pistol shots coming from the ice. The car tracks had stopped some way back, and there were puddles of melt-water on the surface of the ice. We stopped and looked towards where the sounds had come from.
“That was the ice,” said Maria. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
We were quiet, listening. A car hummed along the road far in the distance. There was a hissing sound. Evka looked towards Eugene.
“What should we do?” She was on the edge of panic.
“We should go back,” muttered Maria.
Eugene held up his hand, head tilted to one side.
“I can hear cracking,” said Evka almost laughing, almost crying.
After a moment Eugene turned and smiled, but it wasn’t his usual smile.
“We need to move fast,” he said. “This side of the lake gets more sun. That is all. The ice is still very thick. But we no fuck around, yes!” We laughed. His face became serious. “Come we go. Single file. I go first, I am fattest. If it takes me, it takes you.”
I fell in at the back, walking slightly to the left of the column.
It didn’t take long to get across. When we were within thirty feet of the bank, the ice became translucent and we stopped.
“This doesn’t look good,” I said.
“Will be ok,” said Eugene. “We go careful. Not so far. If it breaks, we can swim to the bank. Look, no ice at edge! Make sure you jump when you get there!” He laughed as though this was all part of the fun. “Start running near the end. Don’t worry, bank is low.”
Evka was crying, but Eugene ignored her, not walking now but pushing his feet as though cross-country skiing. We followed his lead as though he knew what he was doing. Ten feet from the edge, he started to run and the ice began to make cracking sounds.
“Don’t follow me,” he shouted without looking back. We all spread out as we began to run.
The ice was shifting beneath my feet as the grey water swirled and splashed around my boots. I launched myself at the last possible moment where the ice seemed to disappear entirely. I landed on the bank, legs trailing in the water and hauled myself up, almost weeping with relief, hardly feeling the cold or caring about the others. I looked up. Eugene was helping Evka up the bank, and Maria was dragging herself to safety. Eugene looked across and grinned.
“See,” he shouted. “I told you, not so bad!”