‘Snow on Snow’ – from Stories Aloud, Oxford 24 Jan. 2017

Below is the short story which I was privileged to hear read by the wonderful actor Gaye Poole before a live audience.  You can hear a recording of Gaye’s reading here. The text follows below. 

 

snow

 

There was a special quality to the silence, just before the snow, as if all of nature held its breath.  Purple clouds, dark and heavy as mourners, draped the ring of hills that encircled the cabin.

Breathing hard, Richard rested the axe against the stump, his city-weak muscles twitching at the unaccustomed effort, feeling pathetically pleased with the jumble of wood at his feet.  Mr Rushmore, the caretaker, had offered to split more logs for him, but his casual condescension made Richard insist on doing it himself.  It was the principle, the reason he had left the comfort of his New York apartment to freeze his bollocks off here in rural Maine.  At least he thought that was Rushmore’s offer; although he had mastered the New York twang in his twenty years since leaving England, the Maine drawl defeated him.  The man could have been offering to cut his hair or wax his car.

Since Rushmore’s departure, Richard’s sole companion had been a robin, named Alice to his Gertrude.  No one could ever accuse his formulaic thrillers of being literary, but the tidy economy of Alice’s movements, her red breast puffing in and out, shamed the drifts of crumpled pages on the cabin floor. Taking in his paltry wood harvest, he thought:  it’s a good thing that paper burns.

Still, those pages only fit for the fire represented progress.  Back in New York, it was months since he produced anything. Paralysis assaulted him each time he attempted to put words on paper. In a panicked call to his agent, Larry, he blurted it out: his muse of more than twenty bestsellers was gone.  She had been absent before, but never for this long.

‘Not surprised, Richard,’ Larry had sighed, ‘given what you’ve been through this year. You need to get away, cut yourself off from everything that reminds you…especially during the holidays.’

Richard stowed the axe in the shed. If Larry could see him now, he’d be impressed.  He was coping well, for a middle-aged couch potato in the woods.  Losing weight, building muscles, growing a beard that Grizzly Adams would be proud of. He was moving on, like everyone said he should, getting used to life without Maria.

He was writing again—just crap so far, but a start…the distress flare to guide the muse to him.

In celebration, he decided to fry the steak for dinner.  It was the right kind of thing to eat in such a place.  Tomorrow, he would make a grocery run for plain, wholesome food, full of bad cholesterol and salt—everything Maria had banned from his diet, to ensure a healthy old age together.

And now she was gone.

Although only mid-afternoon, the winter-dark was complete. This was the moment, the tipping point when the burden of frozen water became too much for the clouds.  That special silence.

He waited, with a patience never seen in New York. After a moment, he felt rather than saw the first flake.  It landed soft on his upturned cheek, instantly melted by the warmth of his skin.  With a shout of laughter, soaked up instantly by the surrounding pines, he held out his gloved hands to catch more.  In the city, snow was either an inconvenience or a holiday decoration, swiftly turned dingy grey by the incessant traffic. Here, the same snow had blanketed the yard for the past week, still sparkling white.

He had never felt more content, removed from the holiday madness that descended on New York, everyone speeding from store to store with the dead eyes of marathon runners. New Year’s Eve.  By this time, Maria would have reached the tearful stage of festive stress, sending him out for another ingredient for the annual dinner.  And it was on one of those missions, while he was searching for truffle oil, that she had left him.

New Year’s Eve, twelve months ago, this very night

His black gloves were almost white now.  He imagined each flake, a unique, microscopic masterpiece of ice-lace. The cabin windows glowed golden.  It looked cosy, homely, welcoming.  He scooped the scraps of wood into his arms and, shoulders aching pleasantly, went back inside.

 

Dinner finished, he settled at the rickety table beside the stove with another pile of blank pages and his favourite pen, a present from Maria on their first anniversary.  Good penmanship, she had said, was the mark of a gentleman, which later proved to be the height of irony.

Beyond the windows, only silent, solid blackness, so unlike the white noise of the city.  The quiet here felt weighted with expectations—his own, Larry’s, the publisher’s.  The creeping paralysis was back, threatening to derail the minimal progress he had made.  Maria always read for him, chapter by chapter as he went.  In many ways, he wrote for her.  Without her, it felt like his words flew into the vacuum of deep space.

He put more wood in the stove and flexed his hands.  Snowfall supposedly raised the temperature, but it felt much colder in the cabin.  He might need to get more wood from the shed to see him through the night.  The congealed blood and fat on the dinner plate offended him, so he scraped it into the bin.  The cabin’s wooden walls now made him feel crowded, the air a little stale. He would make a grocery run tomorrow, a welcome change of scene.

Hands tight on the coffee mug, he sat close to the stove with a decisive thump.  He hadn’t come all this way, transplanted himself to the arse-end of nowhere, only to be defeated.

‘Just because you’re gone, Maria,’ he said, ‘doesn’t mean that I can’t still write for you.’

A knock on the door brought him to his feet.  Rushmore, come to check on me.  It was sweet, if mildly insulting.

He opened the door, and immediately staggered backwards.  The snow stretched in a solid rectangle from threshold to lintel.  He pushed a hand into it: snow up to his elbow.  He slammed the door and hurried to the window.  With his sleeve, he rubbed a clear circle in the ice film, to be met with the same expanse of snow.  The shovels were outside, also buried.

‘You’ve got to be bloody kidding me.’

He slumped to the window seat.  With no way to contact anyone, or dig himself out, there were only two options left:  either wait for morning, when Rushmore would find him, or lose his shit completely.  He had never been one to panic, not even when he had come back with the damned truffle oil to find Maria, still warm on the kitchen floor, folded up as if to contain the mess that leaked from her wrists.  Like Alice the robin, Maria was always tidy.

Just get through the night. That’s all.  There was heat, a little food, and light—all the essentials.

The wall sconces faded and went out.  Of course, the snow has brought down the power lines.  By the feeble glow of the stove, he lit the lantern.  And then he sat back and had a good, long laugh, recalling bitterly the luxurious lodges he had passed on the way to the cabin.

‘Well,’ he said to the lantern, ‘I did want to get away from it all.’

It really was getting colder. The fire flared optimistically, then collapsed with a quiet sigh.

‘All I need now, for the full Dickens experience, is some fingerless gloves.’

With the kitchen scissors, he snipped the ends from the very expensive ski gloves.  Thus prepared, he felt a pleasing smugness, as he sipped the tepid coffee and took up Maria’s pen.  Like the masters of old, he would focus on his craft.  He felt connected to them all, by an unbroken thread of words going back centuries, all the way back to England.

Even inside the gloves, his hands were stiff with cold, ears and nose burning.  By the lantern light, he pressed the pen’s nib against the page and began to write.  The pen moved, as if under its own power.  He didn’t question, and the words tumbled out in a torrent.  Never had it been so easy, as if the story had lain dormant in his brain all these years, just waiting for the right moment to emerge.  His muse was back!

Hours passed as he scribbled, faster, faster. He stopped noticing the cold, or how low the fire burned.  It was good, what he had written—better than good.  There was subtlety and nuance, pace and tension. The dialogue was rich and satisfying as a beef stew, but effortless.  It would be, he was sure, that very rare beast: the literary blockbuster.  Larry would piss his pants when he read it.  This was the book he was meant to write.

The air grew heavy and thick.  The firewood was gone.  Only a few embers gleamed inside the stove.  He felt very tired, but hyper-alert.

When he sat back to admire the stack of finished pages before him, she was in the other wooden chair, just beyond the reach of the lantern. Waiting.

‘Can I read it?’ she asked.

‘Of course.  I wrote it for you.’

She read in silence, one index finger held between her front teeth, as always.  On previous occasions, she only commented when she was finished, and so it was now.  Fatigue stole over him.  He tucked his numb fingers beneath his armpits and rocked to restore some circulation.

‘I’ve missed you,’ he said.

‘Shush.  I’m reading.’

It should be morning by now, he thought, but the snow-blocked windows had only lightened from charcoal to dark grey. His watch was somewhere at the bottom of his suitcase.

She continued to turn the pages, about halfway through.  Overcome with sleepiness, he rested his cheek on the rough wood of the table.

Her voice woke him, shrill with alarm. ‘Richard, get up!’

He rubbed his cheek.  ‘What’s the matter?’  Then he saw: she had finished.  ‘Oh, good, you’re done.  So what do you think?’  Never before had he wanted so much for her to like his work.

‘It’s terrific, Richard.  Really.’ She caressed the stack of pages.  ‘I always knew you could do it.’

But something was wrong.  He knew her so well.  ‘Why do you sound sad?’

‘Because, Richard…you must burn it—now, this minute.’

‘Have you lost your mind?’  He wrenched the stack away from her into the protection of his arms.  ‘I’m not going to burn it! It’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’

‘It is.’  The sadness in her voice deepened.

His mind felt sluggish as an ice-choked stream.  ‘Then why—?’

‘Can you feel your fingers, Richard?  Your feet? Your face?’

‘Well, no, not really.’  The numbness didn’t trouble him, certainly preferable to the crushing cold of earlier.

‘You must burn it, Richard.  It’s the only thing…the only thing that can save you.’

He became aware of his heart working very hard to push the cold, cold blood around his body. ‘I can’t,’ he breathed, words hanging like a wraith in front of his face.  ‘I’ll never do anything this good again.’

‘Probably not.’

‘They’re coming. Help is…on the way.’  He laid his face on the stack of paper, even colder than his skin.  All he needed was rest, and he would be fine.  She had always been one to over-react.

‘Not soon enough, Richard, not soon enough.’  Her voice grew faint, drifting away.

‘Don’t leave me again, please.  Why did you leave me?’

‘You know.’

Of all the nights he could have chosen to visit Ellie, he would never know why it had to be that New Year’s Eve.  It had seemed the perfect opportunity, when Maria sent him out in the snow for the fourth time.  He had stayed longer with Ellie than he intended, and come home to find Maria, like that. The moment was frozen in his mind, preserved forever.

He felt her waiting, for the words he never got to say, the only words that mattered: ‘I am so sorry.’

No reply, but he knew she heard.

With the last of his strength, he reached for the first page and read: ‘There was a special quality to the silence, just before the snow, like all of nature held its breath.’

 

 

 

 

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