-What is it?
-It’s snow, said Jon. Do you not remember?
The boy’s face was screwed up against the brightness. He giggled with nerves.
-It makes my eyes hurt.
Father and son leaned against the French doors. Jack pressed his nose to the cold double-glazing. An aureole of vapour ballooned over the glass as he breathed. The white was intense, and through the full-length window it seemed to reach to their feet. Jon had not seen snow like this since he was a boy himself, and hadn’t seen snow at all since Jack was a toddler. Except on Christmas cards, of course. He gazed at the enveloping blankness with a vague sense of unease. He felt it in his throat, like the subtlest of itches.
-I wouldn’t complain: it’s giving you a day off school. Do you want to go out and play?
-How do you play in it?
-You throw snowballs. Make snowmen. Ride on a sledge.
-What’s a sledge?
Jon rapped his fingertips on the glass; it made a dull throbbing. He should be excited; he knew he should be excited, for his own sake as much as Jack’s. He’d loved the snow as a child, but still envied his own father the season-long snowdrifts the old man had boasted of. Jon remembered no such icy grip: a few day’s caress and it was gone, like a holiday romance. The green of fields and the grey of houses never seemed so bright as after a thaw. But for Jack’s generation, white winters, and white Christmasses in particular, were like tales of the War: ancient history, without significance. Jon bent down and kissed the crown of the boy’s head.
-It’s something you sit on and ride downhill. Great fun.
-Do we have one?
The noise of the television died, and the central heating shuddered into silence. Jack looked up sharply to his father.
-Power cut. It’ll be okay; just a power line down somewhere. I hope your Mum wasn’t in the shower at the time. He hoped the shared joke at Gail’s expense would reassure the boy. It seemed to work.
-Best wrap up properly if you want to play outside.
-Because it’s cold and wet.
-Wet? They watched as a dunnock imprinted its cautious tread on the pristine surface.
The snowball boomed as it struck the garage window, and shattered into nothing. Jack cheered, and scooped another handful. In borrowed coat and outsize gloves he looked like a B-movie alien, lurching from side to side as he plucked his feet from the drifts. Inside the garage, Jon stared at the empty diesel canister. He felt sick. No amount of gazing would fill it. He hadn’t turned the generator on, but what fuel it contained was all they had until the road was clear. Surely by then the power would be back on. He returned to the generator and pulled out the dipstick a second time, regarding it like a surgeon waiting for a patient to regain consciousness, only to deliver fatal news.
Something struck him. A spray of white, and icy water down his back.
-Boom! cried Jack. Jon wheeled on the boy.
-Stop it! he roared.
Jack froze; an unthrown snowball dropped from his hand. He stood motionless as Jon swept by him across the garden.
-How long do we have? Gail asked.
-A day and a half, he shrugged. Maybe two, if we turn it off overnight.
Gail shook her head. Food in the fridge, she said. Food in the freezer. She sighed an angry, frustrated sigh. I thought the power cuts had stopped. I thought that’s why we kept going to war.
Jon wasn’t in the mood for that particular hobby-horse.
-We use nothing else, he said briskly. Food, light, heat: that’s all.
-We’ve got some gas stoves, haven’t we? With the tent.
Jon chewed his lip. They hadn’t been camping since Jack was born.
-In the attic. Have you checked the phones?
-They’re out, too.
A wave of elation swept through Jon’s body. The unease he’d felt earlier remained as a nagging in his chest, but in this domestic emergency he told himself it had found a purpose, and would pass.
The snow crunched satisfyingly under Jon’s weight. He looked up from the garden and through the narrow valley towards the main road. The darkness of the woods, and the rough moorland on the hill beyond the road looked like fresh etchings on a blank sheet of paper. There was no movement, just the soft stillness of a landscape under cover. No birds sang, or crossed the heavy grey sky. The world beyond could have ended and left only this. No; that was a stupid notion. The world hadn’t ended: there was just snow.
The generator started easily, the noise obscene in its immediacy. A cough of black smoke cleared its lungs. He saw Jack trudging listlessly towards the far edge of the garden, where it sloped towards the lip of the abandoned quarry. His head was bowed, as if in search.
-Where are you going?
The boy stopped and looked about, bemused, as if woken from a sleepwalk.
-Stay away from there.
Jack nodded, and came towards his Dad.
-Can you help me make a snowman? he asked. His coat was crusted with white, like he’d been rolling in the strange new element. Again in Jon’s throat, the stirring of unease. Or was he just coming down with something?
-Why don’t you ask Mum to help? She’s not been outside yet.
-You’re already here. And I want to build a big one, Jack grinned.
The flattery found its mark. Together, they staggered about the garden, accumulating a huge obelisk of snow, which peeled open a path behind them. Sometimes a grass stem, exposed by their stripmining like a reminder of the old world, sprang up behind them, but otherwise the covering of white seemed boundless.
-How big do you want it? The boy had switched off, and stared at the ground. Jack?
-Is this big enough?
-Do you give them faces?
-Of course. A carrot for his nose and – if we can find any – some little black stones for his eyes and mouth. And that’s it. You could give him a scarf, but he’s made of snow. He probably doesn’t feel the cold.
-And then what?
-It thaws and he melts, Jon shrugged. He flapped his collar to ventilate. A slow, agonizing death.
So few you could count them, snowflakes fell while they ate their lunch. Gail opened tins of soup and heated them over one of the old camping stoves. Their smell of burning dust mingled with that of the broth. The family huddled in a tight circle, warmed by the blue flame. There were no lights on, and the laden sky’s gloom pressed at the windows. Jack got up and watched stray flakes adhere to the glass, entranced.
-Your soup will get cold, Gail called to him.
-M-hm. He raised the mug to his mouth and slurped absently. How long will it last?
-A foot of snow won’t disappear overnight, if that’s what you’re worried about. You should clear the drive, she said, turning to Jon.
-That seems a bit pointless: it’s snowing.
-We’ve got to get into town. What if it lasts a week? We can’t sit it out that long.
-Okay – say I clear the driveway. There are miles of snow-covered main road. I haven’t seen a single car out there.
-It might have been gritted. We’ll put the radio on and find out. Gail raised a hand to silence him. Yes, it’ll use up fuel, but we have to find out what’s going on. We have to know when the school’s going to open, if we’re going to work tomorrow.
-There’s been no snow at all for years; how long is it going to last?
-That’s just it! It’s unpredictable.
-Stop arguing, said Jack. He planted his empty mug on the table. Jon and Gail met each other’s stare; the argument played out a few seconds more in silence. Dad, can we build another snowman?
-Ask your Mum, grunted Jon. I’ve got a driveway to clear.
Finally, the spade struck tarmac. It scraped across the drive, clearing a trail of black which the still-falling flakes instantly patterned. For over an hour he’d been digging and shovelling, and wrapped inside his jacket he was sweating. The pathway meandered: several times he’d wandered from the course of the driveway and cleared nothing but garden. Rough banks of snow now bordered the narrow road, all the way back to the car, marooned by the front door. It was getting dark. He turned to survey his work; a messy and ultimately doomed attempt to impose his authority on the environment. If the snow continued, by morning all trace would be gone.
The house looked very small and vulnerable and, though he knew the contrary to be the case, with a single light illuminating a little patch of snow, it looked warm.
Moving as quickly as he could, he exposed more of the tarmac. Then, light fading fast, he called it a day. He replaced the shovel in the garage and headed to the back door. The day’s footprints were almost smoothed away, and a second snowman, smaller than his but carved with more finesse, stood with its back to the first, as if they’d argued. Jon smiled grimly. Inside, he wiped himself down with a damp flannel by way of a bath and changed into fresh clothes which, though cold, were clean and dry.
Later, after Jack had reluctantly gone to bed, they sat by the light of a battery-powered lantern and read their books.
-He said the oddest thing earlier.
-Mm? Jon placed a finger on the line he was reading.
-Well, it was like he was spaced out most of the time. Just staring at nothing.
-That’s not so unusual. For snow, I mean. You know what its like trying to drive; your focus drifts all over the place. Despite his words, he felt a tightening in his chest.
-He got upset when I was finishing the snowman’s face: a parsnip, we don’t have any carrots left.
-Your fault. He said the snowman didn’t want to smile, because it wasn’t happy.
-He’s still young, Jon shrugged.
-But he’s not a toddler. He was really insistent. Tears and foot-stamping; or as much foot-stamping as you can do in the snow. Then he stormed inside.
-It must be weird for him; how would you behave? It’s his first time in the snow, after all.
-But that isn’t true.
They’d lost him, the last time it had snowed. A frantic half-hour was spent sifting through a maze of still-falling snow for the missing infant. Gail had found him; conscious, but in the early stages of hypothermia. His movements were sluggish and heavy. Three nights he spent in hospital, but they’d never mentioned it to him.
The hallway was pale blue in the reflected light of a waxing moon. The sky had cleared in the hours since they’d gone to bed. Jon paused at the head of the stairs and listened. Whatever had woken him was either still now, or had gone. There had been mice, just after they moved in, whose scuttling stopped abruptly if anyone moved. He took a step and recoiled at the shock of cold water underfoot. He rubbed his foot on a dry spot: he would rather pick up spiders with his bare hands than endure cold, wet feet. Patting the carpet revealed a patch of icy dampness reaching from the top of the stairs to Jack’s door. Jon swore silently. There was a water tank in the attic, somewhere over his head. There must be a leak; a pipe frozen and thawed. Or maybe he’d dislodged something while getting the stoves down.
He snapped the hallway light on. Banal light shrunk the house in a moment. Relief flooded him, and he reached to the banister for support. The reason now seemed evident and anyway, no mystery survived light. Except, as he looked up, anticipating damp-stained walls and bulging paintwork, there was no sign of any leak. Puzzled, he turned the light off again so as not to disturb Jack and, stretching over the damp carpet, nudged the boy’s door open. It took a few moments for his vision to adjust to the dark; the shape of the room was fleeting, and only took form at the edges of vision; if he moved his eyes, it fell apart. Jon took a step further. When Jack spoke, he almost screamed.
-The snow’s angry. The boy’s voice was a low monotone, like when Gail talked in her sleep. Jon smiled: his mother’s son. He squatted beside the bed. Jack’s eyes were open; little gleams of light in the darkness.
-Daddy, the snow’s angry. Jack never called Jon “Daddy” any more.
Jon whispered soothing words, and planted the softest of kisses on his son’s warm forehead. He rearranged the blanket to make sure he was snug, then retreated to the door. His foot was already poised when he remembered the patch of damp, and he pirouetted clumsily about the hall to avoid it.
Gail mumbled something through heavy layers of sleep as Jon slid into the residual warmth of the bed.
-It’s okay; it’s nothing. He wasn’t going to tell her, now or in the morning. Within seconds she had tumbled back into slumber, and Jon was alone.
-Dad, did you move the snowmen?
Jack was breakfasted, and wrapping a scarf about his throat.
-Yes. Jon tried filling the kettle, but the water came in a trickle.
-Did you really?
-Mm. I’ve got nothing better to do in the night than move huge lumps of snow around the garden. He switched the kettle on and resigned himself to tracing a frozen length of water-pipe. He flashed a sardonic smile at Jack. The boy merely nodded.
-I saw it was in a different place; I thought someone must have.
Jon heard as if in the distance the back door close, and saw Jack dragging an empty compost sack to use as a sledge. The boy’s parting words leaked slowly into his consciousness. He opened the back door.
The snowmen had moved.
There was no question. Although still a few feet apart, each was a little closer to the house. He closed the door softly, as if to avoid waking someone. He took Gail’s coffee upstairs, his mind wandering until he remembered the patch of wet carpet. His feet wrapped in slippers, he hadn’t noticed it on his way downstairs and now, setting down the mugs, he prodded the thick pile. It was still damp, still icy cold.
-Is Jack outside? Gail pulled the steaming mug to her chest.
-Are you coming back to bed? She gathered back the quilt to expose a foot, an ankle, a calf, a knee.
-I can’t; frozen pipe.
Coffee forgotten, he stood on the back doorstep in coat and boots over his pyjamas, and surveyed the garden for tracks. His breath erupted in clouds. A clear night had brought no further snowfall. The surface was now a thin, dimpled crust of ice, harder and sharper than freshly fallen snow, on which prints took more weight to impress, but lasted longer. There were none, other than Jack’s, heading towards the hillside. He regarded the smaller of the snowmen. Was it his imagination, stoked by this little mystery, or was it taller now, almost as tall as the first? No; more likely the first one, being older, had thawed to some degree.
Should he destroy the larger one, and rebuild it further away? To Jack’s eyes – and Gail’s – there would be two snowmen in similar positions to last night. But Jack might return at any moment, and Jon would be caught white-handed.
-Could you go and find him?
Gail stirred the saucepan – soup again – atop the little stove. Happy to escape the smell of gas, Jon headed into the sharpness of the freezing air. His footsteps bit through the icy crust as he made for the hillside. From a distance he could see the raking tracks of the homemade sledge, but there was no sign of Jack. Jon picked up his pace. He left the shallower snow of the driveway and plunged into the drifts. Like dunes they rolled on towards the skeleton of a half-sunken fence and the barren hill beyond. Heart thumping from the exertion, he followed Jack’s prints. He called the boy’s name but his voice died without echo. The valley seemed to close in on him. He peered into the distance, to the main road and the high moorland.
Then, a glimpse of blue.
Jon flapped his way to the boy, who sat at the bottom of one his sledge-runs. Seated on the plastic sack, with it’s edge still gripped between his gloved hands, he stared at the snow.
-Come on, sport. Lunch.
Still Jack stared. His cheeks were pink, his jacket and trousers dusted with snow.
-Jack? Jon leaned over him, hands on his knees. Tiny puffs of breath, but otherwise the boy made no movement. Jon shook him.
-Come back to me. Jon sang, with more calm than he felt. Finally the boy blinked and looked up. Registering his Dad’s presence, he smiled weakly. Jon helped him to his feet and, the sledge abandoned, they headed for the house.
The radio was on when they returned. The kitchen smelled full and welcoming.
-We need to know what’s going on, Gail said, intercepting Jon’s gaze.
He nodded. Pick your battles, he thought.
-Nothing specific; snow widespread, travel chaos. What you’d expect, really.
They ate their soup in silence. Jack supped his as if in a dream.
-I thought I could walk out to the main road, said Jon. Check the mail, if there is any. See if there’s anyone about
-You’d best go soon. Half a mile in these conditions…
-Excuse-me-thank-you-that-was-good. Jack muttered, scraping his chair legs on the stone floor. Without a word, he disappeared into the utility room, where they heard him pulling on his outdoor clothes.
Gail looked imploringly at Jon, who simply shrugged. She scowled at him.
-Be careful! she called after Jack. The back door slammed. Thanks.
-What kind of way is that for him to behave?
-He wants back out into the snow. When might he get another chance?
Jon concentrated on his soup.
-If you’re going, his wife growled, then go.
Before he could, the back door opened again and slammed shut. There was the rustle of clothes being ripped off. The unmistakeable sniff of someone crying.
-Jack? Gail called.
There was no response, just continued sniffing. Jon was nearest.
Jack’s coat and boots lay where he’d flung them, covered in snow. His face was vermillion, from stinging cold and the tears that crept down his cheeks. Jon folded him into his arms but the boy struggled free.
-No! Get off. He burst into the kitchen.
-What is it, sweetheart? Gail rose to meet him, but he sidestepped her and ran out of the room. Footsteps boomed up the stairs.
-I’d better go.
-Thanks, Jon, Gail said flatly.
Jon followed his own footsteps until he passed the spot where he’d earlier turned off the road. He rounded a corner and the house disappeared.
The snow was shin-deep, and progress was slow: he had to lift his feet vertically at each step, like a marionette. No birds sang, or moved at this time of day. Only he, the human, moved against the rhythms of nature. He’d cycled or driven this road hundreds of times, but no journey had conveyed the distance to him like this. He felt it under his feet, and in his calves.
He didn’t expect to find any mail, indeed had little hope that the road would even be clear. Something in him craved contact, more tangible than the chatter of the radio, with the world beyond the valley. He glanced back: tendrils of fog crept through the woods, and stretched across the road.
Snow began to fall as he climbed the final slope. Even before he reached the road end, he knew that no gritter or snowplough had been near. This was not a priority route, and how high could grit supplies be? There’d been little frost for years, let alone this.
He trudged the last few metres anyway. There was no boundary between the track leading to the house, and the main road. All was a smooth field of snow, erasing man-made distinctions. With a forearm he scraped days’ worth of encrusted snow from the mailbox and prised it open. It was empty, of course. He turned around; the fog was thicker now, and obscured the route. He felt the temperature drop as it closed around him. Though the fog grew thicker, it seemed to lose all depth: to either side of him was emptiness, a white void which made staring into it an unsettling experience. There was no distance, and both ground and sky were an equal white. Instead, the absence of colour provoked a riot on the cornea, and the eye was tricked by swirls of colour that Jon knew weren’t there.
The snow came down in heavier flakes, whose size, and the extra gravity they seemed to possess, was hypnotic. After a while he realised he’d stopped walking. His eyes were lulled by the motion: following the path of a particular cluster of flakes, but never coming to rest. Just another few seconds, he told himself. When might he get such an opportunity again? He closed his eyes and the pattern continued; a blizzard behind the eyelids.
Dampness, cold on his knees. He opened his eyes. He was slumped in a snowdrift, off the edge of the road. How long had he been there? The fog had begun to lift, or dissipate. He pushed himself to his feet, fists plunging into the snow. He clapped his hands, rubbed his wet trousers, and, placing his feet in the vanishing prints he’d made earlier, trudged home.
It was almost dark. The kitchen light marked out a rectangle of snow the colour of clotted cream. Jon moved sluggishly, struggling with the door handle.
-Before you come in- Gail called.
-Could you knock down the snowmen?
-Please, Jon. I’ll explain. Just demolish them both; please.
He turned to face them. He didn’t recall building his one as tall as himself, but he supposed that subsequent snowfall would only add to their height. With a heave, the head tumbled off. It remained intact, half-buried in its mother element. Most of the upper body sheared off, too, and it was a minute’s work to stamp the rest into powder. Satisifed, he turned to the smaller one, but the enthusiasm was gone. The brief postponement of exhaustion had subsided, and he gave it a half-hearted series of shoves until a stump remained. Enough.
He hung his clothes up to drip-dry, and gratefully accepted a mug of coffee from Gail. He rubbed with vigour at his numb, pink toes.
-The road’s completely blocked. No-one’s been about.
-So anyone living further out is in the same position.
-Mm. But they’ll be on farms, and are probably better equipped.
-Maybe they have fuel they could sell you?
-Maybe. If I could get to them. But I don’t want to think about that just now. He held his face over the steaming mug and let it warm him.
-So did the snowmen attack? he asked after a while.
-Jon, he was really upset.
-Jack thinking that snowmen are out to get him is pretty far down the list of things to worry about right now.
-He said they were angry. But it was tears, the whole lot.
-He’s never seen snow before, and he’s lonely. Mum and Dad are boring and his friends are all miles away.
-Is that what you think? Just explain it all away so you don’t have to engage with it?
Jon shrugged and finished the coffee.
-‘It’? What ‘it’? Jack got freaked out by a snowman: in a week it’ll be all forgotten. He stood up to signify an end to the conversation.
-He says the snow talks to him, Jon. He says it remembers him from the time before. But we’ve never told him about it. So explain to me how he could know that.
Jon was awake before the cry ended. He sprang from the bed, feeling instantly the clutch of cold air on his chest. His balance uncertain, he staggered to the landing. At Jack’s door he recoiled; still, the carpet was icy cold and wet underfoot. He switched the hall light on and went in.
Jack was sitting up in bed, sobbing. Jon felt heat radiate from him, and his pyjamas were damp with sweat.
-It’s okay. He sat on the bed next to Jack, and put an arm round his shoulder. It’s just a dream.
-It was the snowman.
-It’s finished. It’s alright. When you go back to sleep, you’ll have different dreams. That one’s gone. And the snowman’s gone, too.
He crossed to the window and, pressing his forehead to the glass, peered down at the garden. A snowman stood there.
-It’s all gone, he said. His legs felt weak. Daddy knocked it down. And if the snow is scaring you, it’ll be gone soon, too. Do you want to come into bed with me and Mum?
-On you go; I’ve got to nip downstairs. I’ll be back in a minute.
It was even colder in the kitchen. Jon slipped awkwardly into his boots and unlocked the door. He hesitated before opening it.
There were no fresh footprints. The trampling of the day had been effaced by later snowfall, and the debris of the demolished snowmen had gone, smoothed away like icing sugar. Proud of it stood the new figure. It was taller than Jon, and had no face.
-No. He shook his head.
-Jesus! He grasped the door handle.
Gail stood behind him, shivering in a dressing gown.
-What’s going on?
Glaring at her, he moved aside. The snowman stood in full view.
-Didn’t you knock-
-Yes. Both of them. And now this is here.
Gail peered out of the doorway, as if expecting to see a culprit scamper into the distance.
-But who could have done this?
-Let’s not think about that now. Come on; back to bed.
-But we can’t just leave it.
-What’s it going to do? Jon regretted the question immediately. We’ll just lock the door and worry about it in the morning.
-What if Jack sees it first?
Jon turned the key in the lock; the noise echoed in the silent house.
-I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Jon looked out of Jack’s bedroom window while mother and son read stories together in bed. Bright sunlight flooded the room. He had to get fuel today. The snow was dazzling, but there was no sign of the snowman. Puzzled, he went downstairs, and pulled all the curtains open. At the fringe of the snow were little pock-marks, etched as melting ice dripped from the gutter. He switched the radio on and waited for the local news to tell him that there was still no power.
As he turned the handle of the back door, something pushed from outside and wrenched the door from his grasp. A weight of snow fell on him, and he was thrown to the floor. He covered his face as the deluge poured over him. Shivering, he picked his way out, and crawled back into the kitchen to catch his breath.
A huge mound of snow spread from the doorstep to where he sat, leaning against the washing machine. Had it snowed in the night, and a prevailing wind piled it in a drift against the door? He had heard nothing since going back to bed. He clambered over the pile, feet sinking through it and impeding his progress. Outside, he remembered the snowman. It had gone. He looked at the pile of snow on the threshold. No; surely not.
By the time he returned with the shovel, Jack was plucking handfuls from the pile of snow.
-A snowdrift, I think. It fell on me when I opened the door.
-It’s melting, isn’t it?
-I think so, yes.
Jack dodged past him and pulled his boots on.
-You’ve not had your breakfast yet!
-I’ll just be a minute! The boy called as he dashed into the garden. Jon cleared the worst of the debris, and found some towels to soak up the meltwater from the floor. Jack kept brushing past him, in and out of the house.
-What are you doing? asked Jon.
-Nothing. The boy held a loosely packed snowball in his hand.
-I might never see it again.
-And…? Jon looked past him, into the kitchen. The fridge door was open. You’re storing it?
Jack nodded. Jon looked inside the fridge. There was a dinnerplate on an otherwise empty shelf, with three snowballs in a small pool of water.
-It’s only frozen water. That’s all it is.
-It’ll melt in the fridge. You’d have to put it in the freezer. And before you ask, no. It would end up like the stuff we have to clear out when we defrost; just ice. It won’t stay as snow. It’s different already, isn’t it, from the other day? Not as fluffy.
-But it said- Jack stopped, his lips tight.
-Go on. Jon spoke softly.
-Jack, I want you to tell me what the snow said to you. He gently closed the fridge door.
-It said that once it was gone it might not come back. It’s scared.
-How does it tell you this, Jack? You know snow doesn’t have a mouth. Even the snowman’s mouth was just a few stones.
As Jack nodded, his hands squeezed the snow, compacting it as his Dad chided him. Jon held out a hand and the boy passed it to him. Jon laid it on the draining board, and led Jack through to the French doors. The sun was as high as it would reach today, and to look in it’s direction was blinding.
-Look; it’ll all be gone soon. Maybe even by tonight, certainly tomorrow if it keeps on like this. Then you won’t hear the voice any more.
-I don’t want the snow to go.
-But surely you don’t want to hear the voice?
-The snow said when it melts, it’s going to take me with it. I thought that if I put it in the fridge there’d always be some there.
Jon pulled the boy to his chest and hugged him.
-You’re not going anywhere, okay? It can’t take you. How can it? It’ll drain away into the ground, and you’re too much of a lump to go after it. He prodded Jack’s belly and the boy squirmed, giggling. It can’t take you with it.
Gail passed him the contents of her wallet – a few coins.
-How much have you got?
Jon flicked through his wallet. About forty, he said.
-That should be enough, shouldn’t it?
-If I spend all of this for a cup’s worth of diesel, it’s better than nothing.
-You can say no, Jon. Don’t let anyone hold you to ransom. We won’t perish if we go without fuel for a day or two. We’ve lasted okay with a little so far. And the snow seems to be melting. Use your loaf. She tapped his forehead.
A sound like thunder grew and moved and spread, somewhere above.
Jon followed Gail’s pointed finger. A curtain of snow falling across the window obscured the view as it slid from the roof. Jack’s footsteps pounded down the stairs.
-What was that?
-Snow falling from the roof, said Gail. It must be melting. Hooray!
Jack shot an anxious glance at his Dad. Jon zipped up his coat and pulled his gloves on.
-Where are you going? Jack asked.
-I’m going to the next farm to try and buy some diesel. I’m going to feel like Scott of the Antarctic, he muttered.
-You mean Amundsen, said Gail. He was successful.
-Right! He clapped his gloved hands together. The soft plosion seemed incongruously cheerful. I may be gone some time.
-Don’t say that.
The footprints he’d left the day before were still visible. Their edges were rounded by the snow that had fallen, but this snow, softer and less icy than that on which it fell, had melted slightly in the sunshine. The terrain was less slippery than it had been, and he still felt fresh when he reached the main road. The shorter route would have been cross-country, over the shoulder of one of the valley’s hills, but going by road was more certain. However, the road still had not been gritted. A single pair of wheel tracks marked somebody’s dogged progress: a tractor or something like it, to judge by the tread. Probably the only thing capable of forging a path. It gave him a line to follow nonetheless.
The snow looked different in the sun. It wasn’t as white as under a cloudy sky, but pale blue, and cream, and a metallic gray as it followed the contours of the land underneath. On the roadside verge and from the telegraph wires and fenceposts water, drip by drip, told of the warming underway. Undulating groups of fieldfare flew from hedgerow to hedgerow.
Less than an hour’s walk brought him to the neighbouring farm which, reassuringly, showed signs of movement. Farms never stopped, after all. The farmhouse was a solid, sparrow-brown, two-storey block, in front of which was a tell-tale mound of newly dropped snow from the roof. He rang the bell and waited.
Slotting once again into his old footprints as he rejoined the driveway, Jon couldn’t help but feel like a hunter-gatherer, returning with his quarry. He grinned stupidly as he neared the house. All was quiet; there was no sign of Jack playing outside. The snow around the house, shallower than elsewhere after so much disturbance, was turning into a gray slush in places. He kicked the snow off his boots at the back door, and triumphantly set the canister down on the kitchen table.
-Success! Get a bottle of bubbly in the fridge. We have power.
Gail smiled, and reached behind her to turn the kitchen lights on. Jon gazed up at them, blinking.
-The electricity came back on about twenty minutes ago, she said.
-Why is there a plate of melting snow in the fridge? Gail asked over a glass of champagne.
-Didn’t Jack say?
-He was playing in his room most of the day. He wouldn’t go outside. And when the power came back on it slipped my mind.
-It’s because of the snow. He told me how it talks to him.
-Are you concerned?
Jon screwed up his face.
-It could be like an imaginary friend. A cousin of mine had one when I was little. Another only child. But anyway, Jack said the snow wants to take him with it when it melts, so he doesn’t want it to melt.
-I think he’s going to be disappointed in the morning. It looks like being a very mild night.
-If it melts, then maybe the voice will go too.
-Should we speak to someone about it, Jon? Someone at the school?
-We’ll see what happens when the snow’s gone.
They woke to a grayer sky but a greener landscape. Atolls of snow remained, around the house and in the folds of hillsides, but the night had seen a massive thaw. Jon opened the window, and even from a distance could hear the rushing of the stream in the valley, glutted by meltwater.
-Take a last look at it.
-Back to work, I guess. Gail’s voice was sleepy, and she peered at the brightness from behind a sheltering forearm. Will you get Jack up?
-Sure. I’ll just check the radio first. Jon pulled on some clothes and headed across the landing. Just in time, he remembered the patch of damp, and pulled himself up short. It was dry, though. Puzzled, he knocked on Jack’s door.
-Rise and shine!
Downstairs, he put the radio on. On the bottom shelf of the fridge was a plate brimming with water. This snow, too, had gone.
There was enough milk only for one of the cups. He left his black, though he hated it that way, and took Gail hers. Then he knocked on Jack’s door again and went in.
-Come on, sport. School’s open.
The boy was sitting upright in his bed. His eyes were open, his breathing was calm, and his gaze was fixed on the wall opposite.
-Jack? Jon snapped his fingers but there was no response. Jack?
He nudged the boy’s shoulder and softly spoke his name. He knew this look; he’d seen it recently and thought so little of it.
Jon sat next to his son, gently so as not to disturb him, and put a protective arm around his shoulder. He buried his face in the boy’s hair, inhaling deeply. He said his name, over and over. But he knew that despite their proximity, Jack’s eyes looked far beyond the wall to a flurrying blizzard of white, an endless vortex of white.
I am indebted to the following for their support, suggestions and criticism over many years:
Jon Taylor, Stephen Hood, Will Pinfold, David Mayne, Matthew Taylor, Brian McCabe, Dilys Rose, Fiona Richards, June Counsel & Writers in Peterborough, Bill Zaget, Tom Hewitt-McManus, Barry Christie; my thanks to Drew Howie for the cover artwork.
Thanks also to my family and friends, and – last but not least – to Helen and Jamie.
About the author
Paul Gorman was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1974. He studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, and works in Edinburgh. His stories have appeared in a number of publications. In 2002 he was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, where his work was described by poet Don Paterson as “brilliantly atmospheric”. He is married with one son.