This story appeared in Causeway / Cabhsair: A magazine of Irish and Scottish Writing (Volume Two, Issue Two, 2011):
by Christine Laennec
When Maddy had first invited him, he’d worried that it would be too difficult to go back to her house on his own, and at New Year’s as well. But Maddy had insisted that he was missed, that it had been too long – and so he had come. He’d imagined the cottage as bleak, pared of its roses and foxgloves. But he’d never dreamt of this – winter splendour on a scale usually only seen on hideous Christmas cards. From the guestroom window he saw that another layer of snow had come in the night, and had hardened to a sparkling mantle on the countryside.
It was so perfect it was almost in bad taste. But Maddy, like her sister, never had bad taste. The wreath on the door, the holly still fresh on the mantelpiece, the Liberty mug he’d drunk his tea from – the house had a sense of balance, and beauty.
‘Paul? Are you coming?’ The voice calling up the staircase caused the most terrible pain to come into his chest. His mind worked it out ahead of his heart: it couldn’t be Caroline.
‘Paul?’ Not quite Caroline. Same voice, same family, different person. Someone still in the land of the living.
He shouted down: ‘Coming, Maddy.’ It took a while for his pulse to stop racing as he pulled on his heavy boots.
Colin had left the front door open, of course. So thoughtless, as children are. And now he was climbing on the fence rails, laughing raucously as he knocked an icicle off the guttering. Maddy never disciplined her boys at all.
‘Hey Uncle Paul!’ Colin shouted at him. ‘Look at me!’ A tiny headache in his temples suggested itself. ‘Watch!’ Colin took another swipe, lost his balance and turned his fall into a kind of leap. The icicles stabbed the snow below with muffled thuds.
‘Very clever.’ Perhaps if he put his sunglasses on then his head wouldn’t hurt so much. It was awfully bright. He walked with crunching steps out onto the lane. The air was bracing, to say the least. He could almost feel tiny particles of frost entering his lungs.
‘…grump.’ Aaron’s high voice reached him. He decided that his nephew’s comment would bypass his pride, and walked away. He reached the turning but instead of finding Maddy as he’d expected, there was only the long avenue, gold and white in the low afternoon sun. It was so silent and still. If only everything could stop like this: all memory of a green, living time beautifully obliterated. He wanted to lie down and give himself completely to the bitter cold, let the snow cradle him.
‘There you are! Isn’t it glorious?’ Revelling, Maddy clapped her hands together. There was a tendency in his wife’s family towards a gushy enthusiasm that rather spoiled things. ‘Yes indeed,’ he said, and the avenue no longer called to him.
‘Paul, this is my neighbour Anne.’ Where had she come from? He said hello to this new person in wellies and a scruffy jacket. She greeted him warmly in return – did she know? – and the next minute she had disappeared back around the turning again. Maddy laughed. ‘Isn’t this typical, the minute you set off somewhere everyone starts going backwards!’ And in a louder voice, ‘Colin! Aaron! Come along! We need to go now if we want to be back before dark.’
After a moment’s silence she too turned back towards the house, saying, ‘You start and we’ll catch up.’ He did as he was told, but honestly! He didn’t even know the way. ‘Turn left at the end of the avenue,’ she shouted back.
It had been a long time since he’d walked in snow. And this snow was just right: not too deep, but deep enough to give a satisfying amount of resistance to his footsteps. As he walked he noticed that the forest wasn’t silent after all. There was a tinkling kind of breath that passed through it as the sunlight teased drops off the icicles. Stop being so sentimental, he told himself. You’re not a university student discovering Walt Whitman. No indeed. He was a solicitor starting to lose his hair.
He felt a gentle touch on his coat sleeve. That sometimes happened. His doctor had told him the mind has ways of softening the blow. Then the something touched his wrist and he started violently, shaking it off. His glare was returned by a steady gaze, two grey eyes looking up at him.
‘Who are you? And what do you mean by sneaking up on me like that?’
‘I’m Alicia. I didn’t sneak up on you.’ The tingling flush had reached his fingers and toes and his heart was still thumping wildly. To his amazement the child persisted in slipping her mittened hand into his glove. If he hadn’t had such a bad fright he would have been firmer, but he gave in.
‘Do you think the river will be frozen over?’ she asked. He’d begun walking more quickly, to discourage her, but she kept up very well.
‘I doubt it.’
‘But it could be. Oh wouldn’t that be magical!’ and she gave a little hop mid-step, her pigtails flying up from under her red hat. She kept on prattling: ‘If it’s frozen over we could try and cross it. Only we’d have to be very careful, because if the ice cracks open we could die!’ Her other mitten gave an expressive wave in the air.
Where on earth were the others? He looked back up the avenue and saw Maddy and her neighbour deep in conversation. The neighbour waved at the little girl, who kept hold of his hand and waved back. No doubt her mother was glad to get some peace for a while.
‘Why don’t you go play with Aaron?’
‘He doesn’t like me to play with him.’ Fancy that! ‘He says I spoil his games but I don’t.’ Her eyes flashed and her face, pink from the cold, took on a deeper hue. They’d reached the end of the avenue. He waited for the others, stamping his feet, but the little girl began tugging at him.
‘It is! Look! Come!’ So that was it: she needed an adult to accompany her. She pulled him across the road to a wide gate. Beyond a field pitted with ice puddles lay a white expanse pierced by dead reeds and rimmed by trees.
‘I’m not sure that’s the river.’
‘It is! Come!’ She was trying to push the gate’s heavy bolt, but her mittens stuck to the frost on the metal. He went to help her and they were soon through into the field, which had flooded and then frozen. She took his hand again. First she was a half-step ahead and then she was pulling him to wait as she jumped on the swirls of ice, cracking them open.
‘You’re hurting my arm,’ he told her, taking his hand away. The furrows, which a few days ago had been mud, were now sharp under his boots as he walked.
‘I didn’t mean to.’ He repressed an irritated sigh. That was one regret he didn’t have. He would have made a terrible father. He had no patience for children’s slow wit, the trudging quality everything took on when they were around. He just wanted to do his job, and then come home and relax.
The others were still up at the top of the field. Maddy was clowning around with Colin and Aaron. They were swinging on the gate! The wind blew their voices the other way. A flash of anger shot through him. She’d invited him for a quiet weekend and here he was dumped with this –
‘Colin’s auntie died.’ God, could there be a more insufferable child?
‘Yes I know.’
‘But that was a long time ago already. It was – in the summertime I think.’ He had a sudden impulse to smash her, just as she smashed through the puddles. He wanted to throw her like a limp doll clear across the field.
‘She was a nice lady.’ The grey eyes looked up at his. ‘Do you want to stop for a rest? We can stop.’ He made his legs move again. They had come to the edge of the floodplain.
‘I told you, I told you! It is frozen over!’ She had his hand again, trusting, completely focused on the ice. Her small foot took one step forward, and it held. She took another step, then let go of him. He stood there consumed with wrath and bitterness.
‘Come on, Uncle Paul!’ I’m not your uncle, he almost spat at her. He wished she would disappear. But watching her pick her way along, he too was tempted. He took a step and crashed through to dry brown leaves a few inches beneath. She shouted with joy, clapping her hands. Like a giant conquering another world, he took another step and then another. With every shattering he felt relief. He looked back for a minute at the others, who waved. He waved back and went on with his destruction of the flat white surface. Alicia was jumping up and down, trying to do the same. On they went, leaving a trail of angled, pointed plates of ice behind them. Ahead of them there was only smoothness.
He was studying the overlapping ovals in various tints of blue and grey, deciding where to aim the heel of his boot, when a sound like a dog’s yelp made him look up. Then something pierced his heart: a sliver of terror. Where Alicia had been stomping lay a crumpled form and a red tassled hat. Without waiting for his command, his legs took him along like a well-trained beast, pulling his feet out from under the jagged ice as fast as they could, the water and mud starting to suck at his boots. The keening sound continued, over his own crashing. She was so far away, and then suddenly she was there, half of her, clinging to the sharp edge.
Afterwards he couldn’t think how he’d done it. How had he managed to pull her out and carry her back along that treacherous path without falling? It wasn’t until he reached the avenue, with the others running alongside, that he had started to cry. All the way up to the house he had rushed awkwardly, Alicia’s strong arms around his neck and her legs and body soaking him. He had run, no longer because she was in danger, but because he didn’t want the others to see the hot tears streaming down his face.
Thankfully, it was all behind them by evening. The children, bathed and in their dressing gowns, were playing Snap by the fire. Alicia’s mother sat close by, still pale. Maddy refilled his glass and raised hers in a silent toast as she sat down in the chair across from him. Then she leaned forward and pointed to his chest, smiling.
‘Nice star.’ He looked down, and saw the silver sticker Alicia had put on his shirt when they’d sat down to tea. He reached in annoyance to take the thing off, but instead found himself carefully pressing one of its points back down onto the fabric.
‘Thank you,’ he said, and picked up the newspaper.