This is a story from the hottest day of the year. But it is not my story, because on the hottest day of the year I wake up on the western tip of Cornwall, where it isn’t hot at all. When I look out of the window in the morning I see the coastline draped in heavy cloud. My phone says it’s 17C outside. I put on a jumper – the one I almost didn’t pack – and sit in the kitchen drinking coffee, fingers laced round the cup.
All the news on my phone is about the hottest day of the year, possibly of any year, and I feel left out. This is exactly what it’s like every time my home town in the US is damaged by a hurricane. The rest of my family have a story to tell, the title of which is the name of the hurricane. When I next see my siblings, they will describe the devastation wreaked by Judy or Florian in detail, and I will think: I should have been there for that.
Outside the kitchen window the clouds blacken further and the wind picks up. Rain begins to fall at a pronounced slant, spattering the windows. My friend Miranda, in whose house we are staying, comes into the kitchen.
“Wow,” she says. “Look at that.”
We take pictures of outside on our phones and send them to friends, but photographs of dark skies framed by a rain dappled window are a hard sell on the hottest day of the year.
A national weather map shows that only the very tip of Cornwall is covered in cloud. In every other part of the country the sun is shining, the roads are melting and records are being shattered. The middle one sends a picture from home, of the cat lying on the floor cradling an ice cube.
We attempt to read our way into the national heatwave. Someone suggests building a fire.
Later on the sky clears and we walk to the beach. My wife goes swimming, but I decide it’s too chilly – the thermometer has not breached 20C. That evening everyone in the house gets out phones and tablets and laptops. We attempt to read our way into the unprecedented national heatwave, trying to feel a part of it. Someone suggests building a fire.
Miranda, meanwhile, is on the phone with her sister in London. When she gets off she says: “I have a story to tell.”
This is Miranda’s sister’s story.
On the hottest day of the year Miranda’s sister is riding her scooter round the top end of Shepherd’s Bush Green. The streets are baking, the pavements almost empty. She is waiting at a red light in a column of traffic when the driver of the car in front of her gets the urge to clean his windscreen. As he presses the appropriate wand on his steering column, windscreen fluid jets up and over the roof of his small car, hitting Miranda’s sister directly in the face.
With the light still red, Miranda’s sister decides to remonstrate with the driver. She edges up alongside him and raps on his window. He rolls it down, letting a cold blast of air conditioning escape his vehicle. She tells him what just happened. He looks up at her face, which is still dripping with the blue fluid.
“Well,” he says, “why aren’t you wearing a visor?”
“Um, because it’s the hottest day of the year,” she says.
It is easy to imagine Miranda’s sister later feeling she made a tactical error with this justification. She owes the man no explanation. Visors are not compulsory, and anyway, they were not designed to protect people from his thoughtlessness.
Even in the moment she has a strong feeling the man is sidestepping the central issue and suggests that instead he might like to apologise for his poorly aimed washer jets, and the fluid that is still stinging her eyes.
There is an awkward pause which the man chooses not to fill with an apology. It is 40C outside. Elsewhere in the city, news reporters are attempting to fry eggs on car bonnets. As the light ahead turns green, she leans in closer and points an accusatory finger. She and the man speak at the same time, over one another.
She says: “You know what? Fuck you!”
He says: “Aren’t you Miranda’s sister?”
“So that’s what happening in London,” Miranda says.
“Who was the man?” my wife says.
“Dunno,” Miranda says. “She said he had a little dog in the car with him.”
Beyond the windows the scudding clouds develop deep orange rinds, like ripening cheeses, as the sun sets over the well-watered headland.
“Little dog, little car, Shepherd’s Bush,” my wife says. “I’m sure we can figure it out.”
I think: once again, I am missing everything.