Fender pulled on his longjohns and tugged his thermal vest over his head. A thick pair of trousers followed, as did two pairs of socks, one over the other. Then a shirt and a jumper. Heavy boots. He walked towards the door and took the winter coat off the peg and enveloped himself within. He looked around for his hat and scarf but couldn’t find them. He cursed and, after pulling on his gloves, decided to brave it and head out without them. He stepped through the door and into the street. It was 26 degrees Celsius, the warmest day for months.
Every other man he could see was wearing a t-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt; the women were all in skirts or summer dresses. He shivered a little, drew his coat even more tightly around himself and ran across the street to where his car was parked. As soon as he got inside, he turned on the ignition and fired up the heating.
While he waited for the car to warm up he gazed blankly at the pairs of flags strung up across the road into the distance. He recognised the city’s coat of arms on one, but the other was a mystery. Red, with a strange cityscape inside a badge in the top right corner; he had never seen it before.
The steering wheel still felt slightly chill as he swung the car out into a gap in the traffic. He wished he was in a country where he had to turn off the air conditioning rather than turn on the heating; where rain came only to break through the humidity rather than as an almost constant drab, damp blanket. The radio blurted out something about the start of a mild, early heat wave, but he knew that wouldn't amount to much and certainly not enough.
His job that day, as every day, consisted of replacing some road signs, restoring others to their proper upright position and cleaning up defaced signs so that they read as they should. It wasn’t a great job, not least because it meant being out in the freezing cold all the time, and Fender thought the task was gradually whittling away his intelligence. He was forgetting more than he had ever learnt, but he also got some pleasure from dreaming of being in those other places the signs pointed to, and that was almost enough. The problem with living on an island was that those other places weren’t all that far away and most days they were just as damp and cold as where he was.
On four days of the week he left the office to go to a different compass point of the city. That day it was to the west, where there were few options for motorists except to turn around and head back towards the centre. The coast was only a few miles out from the city and the small village of Mote was the only thing that lay between the two.
At least once a month someone would scrawl a prefix of “Re” in front of the village’s name on any one of a dozen signposts, and it would be Fender’s task to clean it off. This time he came across slightly more inventive graffito, though. Someone had changed the “e” to an “o” and added “-rway” as a suffix. Fender assumed it to be a sarcastic complaint about the poor road conditions and set to restoring the sign to its original state.
Three other road signs in the area were defaced that day. The first turned the town of Pales into something unreadable and the second the suburb of Cartgate into Cartagena. And that week, as every other, the main sign pointing towards Landsend had been replaced with its more commonly used nickname of Landfill.
Fender had never heard of Cartagena before. With his tour completed by early afternoon he decided to use the remaining hours back in the office to find out where it was. What he found made him pine even more for another place. Whether it was the Spanish or the Colombian version made little difference, either would be a substantial improvement on Cartgate, Landsend or indeed the city itself. The heat and the humidity of either were welcome thoughts on their own, but the exoticism of the Caribbean coast and the stories of pirates and privateers, or the history that must lie inside every Roman brick of the Mediterranean ruins added far greater depth. Fender sat back in his chair and thought about living a contented life travelling between the two. The Spanish city was the nearer, but he was slightly more drawn to the Latin American version, even if it was five thousand miles further away.
After half an hour someone came in to knock him out of his reverie and, discovering they had walked into the wrong room, promptly left again. Fender got up and headed to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to wake himself up properly. While he waited for the kettle to boil he looked at the local paper that had been abandoned on the counter top. The front page was mostly taken up with a story about the city being twinned with somewhere called Skopje, in Macedonia apparently. Fender had never heard of that either, but the description of a small landlocked state didn’t really appeal. Why there? Why not pick a partner from somewhere more exciting, somewhere warmer, somewhere that might lend a fresh air to the place, a warm breeze to fend off the chills.
The next day he went about his rounds to the east of the city and he fell back to these thoughts, dreaming up places to pair with the suburbs and villages he was travelling through. He put St Petersburg with one, Venice with another, Johannesburg with a third. How far away were all these places? He tried to estimate the distances but gave up when he realised that he could only guess within a range of a few thousand miles. After abandoning that thought, he instead fell to thinking about directions to those cities which, with the pallid, weak sun in the sky above as a guide, were easier to work out.
From there it was only a short mental distance that Fender himself had to travel before he came to the one thing that would define him, to take the action which would arch over anything he had attempted before. But it still took a week for him to resolve it in his mind.
He first broached the subject with his girlfriend, who laughed. Then she pursed her lips and suggested it would be a rash act which could lead to his dismissal. A friend laughed even more and said it would definitely see him thrown out of his job. These objections and observations were met by others in his own mind, but they were outweighed by the romanticism of the move.
He started small to see what impact he might have. While out on his rounds one day he simply added a line to the bottom of an existing sign which pointed the way to Farrow and St Justice Junction. To these two unrewarding destinations he added Cap Bon, which lay in the same direction, albeit rather more distant.
Another week went by before Fender had built up enough courage to do it again. In that time not a single complaint had been made about his first intervention, which fortified his resolve and pushed him to be more ambitious. This time, instead of a simple direction sign, he did a bit of research on his target city and decided to go for distance as well. Towards the end of his shift, while pretending to clean off some graffiti on a sign to the south of the city, he put down the name of Ipiales, along with a rounded-up number of the distance that it lay from there in miles.
Once again he didn’t hear of any complaints, and as the days went by and he passed to and from work, his portfolio of new direction markers grew. Alongside the prosaic signs for the ferry and the bridge, the capital, the outlying suburbs and the coastal towns were added the names of cities and landmarks which many locals had never heard of before, places that Fender hadn’t been aware of before his research: Salta and Segovia, Montenegro and Nouakchott.
Each evening he would pore over an atlas and the internet. Starting with a local road junction, he would extend a line until it hit a foreign city, preferably in the tropics for the sake of his own climatic aspirations. The next time he covered the relevant territory on one of his rounds he would augment the existing signs as necessary.
His work became easier with the lengthening of the days. As the evenings extended he no longer had to rush to finish his normal work and allow time for his hobby – there seemed enough daylight hours for both. The unusually dry weather helped too – Fender was able to paint the signs without the disruption of regular showers that was the norm. While he drove around, the car radio in the background boasted of the ever-improving climate.
The signs seemed to provoke no public complaints, but Fender’s manager did at times comment on the profusion of illegal signs that were appearing, urging him to work additional hours if at all possible to combat the plague. Fender happily acquiesced. It gave him more time to devote to his task, and at overtime rates of pay. The manager did not see that the problem worsened with the more hours Fender worked and was merely thankful that he had such a devoted employee.
Despite his long-standing scepticism, Fender began to think there might be something to the continual exhortations by the media to enjoy the heat wave. For the first time in years he began to feel warm, to the extent that he left the house one day without his thick winter coat. The warmth seemed particularly marked in the corridor to the south of the city, where he had spent much of the previous week planting signposts to Luanda, Asmara and Riyadh. Oddly, he thought he had perceived a light dusting of sand close to one sign as he drove past.
And there were other, more troublesome developments. Car drivers began to complain about getting lost, and bus drivers were being harried to take passengers to destinations which lay well beyond their usual route, well beyond the limits of their buses’ endurance. The buses which worked the road now pointing to Karachi were more overcrowded than ever; several chickens and one goat (all live) were smuggled on to some of the Bamako-bound ones; and there were complaints from distraught school children about a suspected case of a guinea pig being eaten close to a turn-off marked for Lima. In other parts of the city things were worse. There was at least one instance of someone trying to ride on the top of a train heading in the general direction of Bangalore, who met with an unfortunate end courtesy of a low-slung power cable overhead. One of the drivers on the Prague route was sacked for persistently seeking extra, illegal payments from passengers with luggage.
But as long as the weather continued to improve, Fender was willing to overlook such difficulties. In any case, there were also improvements to some routes. The quality of cooking in the cafes on the way to Cap Bon seemed to improve markedly, and no-one objected to the empanadas that were now on sale by roadside vendors close to the junction for Bogota.
And so Fender began to experiment. One day he added the name Tromsø to a sign. The next day the radio reported a freak hail storm in that part of town. But it could still all be coincidence, he told himself, it just needed further study.
He decided to set up more experiments. He began placing some signs on a more random basis, not necessarily pointing in the direction of the destination they mentioned. He bought some small weather kits which could measure rainfall, hours of sunshine and wind speeds, and installed them close to the signs so he could gather his own data.
The initial results were inconclusive He wondered if different signs might be cancelling each other out, or perhaps the direction really was the key. Further experimentation and record-keeping would be needed, but after just two weeks his ability to track what was happening was disrupted by the weather itself.
One day torrential rain started to fall in his part of the city, causing flooding which prevented him getting beyond the end of his road. It was dry on the far side of the city, but impromptu streams and rivers were making channels for themselves all around his house, and he was trapped. Some elderly neighbours were evacuated but those who wanted to stay were allowed to. Fender, mindful of someone discovering his hoard of signage equipment while he was absent – equipment that his girlfriend asked ever more penetrating questions about whenever she visited – decided to stay put.
After the rain gave way to some dry days he was able to get back out, return to his job and restart his tours of the city’s road signs. He had been absent for just a few days, but he found that the usual graffiti had returned in abundance and his signs seemed to have provoked even greater creativity in others. A marker pointing to Rhodes was appended with “to nowhere”, Oslo had been turned into sOslow and the capital of the Comoros Islands, Moroni, had been altered to Moronic. The roads were still dangerous with so much standing water, and Fender even skidded off the road at one point, knocking into a sign close to his house that pointed to Juneau in Alaska. That put him off driving for the day and, given that there were too many signs for him to deal with in one day, he decided to give up for the evening.
That night the snow started to fall around his house. It piled up over his car and up to his windows in the space of just one night. The next day he went out with a shovel and dug out a path to the road, but the road itself had been buried deep under the white. The path could take him to the road, but if he couldn’t get anywhere beyond that there was no value in having reached it, so he stopped shovelling and retreated into his house.
Again he was trapped, but unlike the rain which had stopped after just a few days, the snow kept coming day after day. It reached up past the first storey of his house to the second floor. His food supplies began to drop and he took to eating sparingly. The pipes around his house froze, cutting off the supply of water, the phone lines crashed down under the weight of snow. He took to wearing his entire wardrobe of clothes, but still he felt cold. If he had managed to carry on digging the path from his house and gone past his car to the end of the road, he would have realised that the sign he had crashed into was no longer pointing in the direction of Juneau as he had thought, but straight at his house.