Jan McCarthy

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

‘A Snow Burial’

Fortified by insanely strong black coffee and the last of the Christmas cake, you start digging just after dawn. The sky that had settled over the house, a heavy, damp blanket all day yesterday and throughout the night, is clear this morning. You’re hopeful the sun will warm your back as you work but, although it’s three weeks since the solstice, still the sun is being miserly and you have to squint to see where to turn the earth. You should have worn your reading glasses, the way you’re having to bend low to use the trowel.

Where is the spade? Did Steve steal it? Did he sneak it into the removal van with the rest of his belongings? It would have been easy enough to do that, though why he would want a spade is a mystery. He hates gardening and left all the planting and pruning to you, even the heavy jobs. He probably took the spade just to needle you, pinched it from the tool-shed while he and his best mate were here with the van, smirking while they cleaned you out of everything that was his, and nearly all of what you considered shared possessions. The big painting of humpbacked whales he gave you for your last birthday went. That was surely an act of pure spite. It was your favourite. The sheepskin rugs have gone, the slow cooker and most of the crockery and glassware. You should have made a list – ‘Things to Take at Your Peril’ – and lodged it with the solicitor. Thank goodness the spice rack has survived the raid. You’d be lost without your spices. When life becomes dull they’re a way of adding interest, if only to meal-times.

You shouldn’t have gone out while Steve was here, pillaging. Against your better judgement, you were enticed out by Lena and Sophie to drown your sorrows at the pub down the road – the one where they serve fondue and the best Christmas punch. You should have stayed at home to supervise, but you thought you might let yourself down, get aggressive. Correction: the girls thought you might get aggressive. Let’s face it, you were more likely to show weakness: cry, whinge, plead. It was too soon, too quick. You’ll miss him. He was good for business. Where are you going to find another book-keeper in time for the annual audit? And he wasn’t a bad cook, though he made a ridiculous amount of mess in the kitchen. Forget the sex, it was only ever average. You should have taken that as a sign of incompatibility, the first time you slept with him, and run a mile. After all, it’s sex that makes couple relationships different from all the others, isn’t it?

The foundations of the old house are still there, just below the surface. The old house: that’s the one Steve knocked down in order to build the new one, which is colder and draughtier (and damn ugly!), contrary to promises made. Your grandfather built the old house when he and your grandmother first settled here, must be over a century ago. It broke your heart to see it being destroyed – the shouting, the thump of the wrecking ball against the grey stones your grandfather had so carefully cut, mortared and set – but Steve’s argument that you needed something more modern to impress clients carried the day: “They’re hardly going to be wowed by this old heap, are they, sweetie-pie?”

He was right. The new glass monstrosity that took the place of grandfather’s cottage – in less time than it probably took him to lay a single course – has been featured in several design magazines, and the architect won an award. There was even a TV interview with you and Steve presenting as the perfect modern couple. The hair and make-up took over an hour. Stiff in designer suits, lattes in hand, we took the presenter and crew on the guided tour, showing off the digital technology: the sensors for the lights, the voice-activated bloody curtains and blinds. It was a warm day, fortunately. Otherwise the cracks would have shown up. It’s freezing in January, even with the wood-burning stove and the under-floor heating turned up to full blast.

Your boots are still damp from yesterday’s long trek through the forest. You forgot to stuff them with newspaper when you got in. You should have put on rubber ones for this job. It’s the long grass that’s carrying the melt water through to your socks: the melt water from the snowfall just before Christmas. How disappointing that it was gone by Christmas Day, when the girls came round to share the dinner that had been meant for you and Steve and his parents. The turkey and trimmings tasted strangely old and sour; the raspberry and white chocolate roulade distinctly cheesy. The whipped cream must have turned. Nothing here does what you want it to do. Nothing. At least, not for long. It’s like the house and the marriage, cursed with some kind of built-in entropy, a too-rapid obsolescence.

The grass has grown up since you gave it its intended final mowing in late November. It won’t stop. Global warming, Albert next door reckons. He’s worried about the bees mostly, says when they’re done for we’re all doomed. What he says makes you glad you and Steve didn’t have a kid. Albert thinks the day will come when there will be no more snow at all, not even a dusting. When he talks, you feel guilty. Yesterday, when you came out of the forest on the other side and saw the village church, you almost went in to pray, but you don’t believe. Humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation? You’ve got to be kidding!

The grass, until you tread it down with your boot, masks the lines of the walls where the edges of the broken and crushed grey stones seem to be pushing back up through the earth like buried bodies that don’t want to lie down and die. What if the house could rise again? What if there was a way of travelling back in time to when grandfather’s cottage still stood, before the new house was built, before you met Steve and lost your head? Things would have been so different. Or would they? You have a weakness for cads and bounders, you know you do. If it hadn’t been Steve, it would probably have been another one like him… or worse. You should give up choosing the ones who will be useful for making money but have rotten characters. Your mother made the same mistake and look where that got her.

The first hole yields nothing but rocks and gravel, the second only lumps of clay, the third the roots of ivy you didn’t dig out properly last year. No wonder the plant, meandering underground, has reached the greenhouse and is climbing its walls. You wish you had the ivy’s persistence. How many times did you ask Steve to go, and how many times did you cave in and let him stay? Even after Marie told you about the fumble in the kitchen during the your birthday dinner party. Even then, you let him talk you round. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

By the time your mother arrives for lunch, your back is protesting and the garden is a mess.

“Problem with moles?” she asks as she whisks off her scarlet and green tweed coat, purple wool scarf, pink leather gloves and Christmas reindeer hat.

Mother is colour blind. It doesn’t matter. Her smile, her rosy cheeks and mop of silvery hair make sure she gets away with her fashion blunders. People smile when they see your mother. They tend to frown when they look at you. Something must be done about it. Your New Year’s resolution: to be more amiable, more charming. Good luck with that!

You explain about the box and that, rack your brains as you may, you can’t remember where you buried it. You keep it to yourself that you and Ex-hub were as drunk as wasps on windfalls when you buried it, naked in the moonlight, giggling conspiratorially over the rude photos and lewd love poetry you’d put in it. Not to mention the sex tape that you promised each other you’d replicate on your tenth wedding anniversary, move for move, whether you felt like it or not and even if you’d produced a couple of kids by then – kids who could interrupt at any minute. A love box, Steve said. A love box, what a joke!

You don’t tell mother any of that. You tell her it was a memory box with a few souvenirs: a time-capsuley-type-thing. She makes suggestions, offers to help, but all you want to do is turn your back on the garden with its eighteen holes (though signally unsuited to the playing of golf) and eat your lunch. You’re ravenous from the morning’s exertions, and anyway, she’d want to see what’s inside, and that would never do. While you stand at the stove making stir-fry, you try one more time to remember where you buried it. It wasn’t under the cedar tree, which was your first guess, or by the wrought-iron bench next to the fish-pond, your second…

You can’t leave it there. You’re selling up, moving back to Frankfurt, to mother’s, to help out with the garden centre, once the audit is done and the business wound up. There’s something about selling upmarket cosmetics that makes you feel sick these days. Maybe it was that thing Albert said about plastic waste and ‘humanity fiddling while the planet burns’… You’ll be glad to get out of it, especially now Steve’s gone.

What were the odds of you reaching your tenth anniversary? You didn’t even make it to your third. The light went out of your romance when he wouldn’t help you plant last year’s Christmas tree in the forest before it dropped its needles and died, and laughed when you said it was too late, and gleefully took an axe to chop it up for burning on the wood-stove.

Your mother sits at the kitchen table and talks about the skiing trip she’s going on in February – the one she’s been saving up for all year.

“Why don’t you come?” she asks, “You miss the snow – the real snow – as much as I do.”

You say you’ll consider it and she tells you you had better make a quick decision because the lodge where she’s staying fills up fast.

“You’ve seen the pictures,” she says, “It’s gorgeous!”

You have and it is. Question is: will you be able to find the box, destroy its contents, put the garden back in order, pack up the house, sell it and move to your mother’s, all before the trip? Maybe. Steve always said the house would sell in five seconds, because of the award, and because of the land around it: the forest, the lake, the orchard, grandfather’s pride and joy, your inheritance, sullied by a man you should never have trusted. Maybe a nice family will buy it and love it the way it deserves. You make a note to yourself to tell the estate agent: no power couples, only people who fall in love with the land when they see it. It looks so lovely in its autumn colours, in spring bursting with fresh greenery, shimmering in summer heat, and under winter snow that brings such peace and stillness…

“You should book up today,” says your mother, “You can always cancel if you haven’t finished up here. Or you could put a house-sitter in, to keep an eye.”

She’s right. You could. So you agree. Real snow – that’s what you need. Fields and fields of it, as far as the eye can see, pristine, sparkling, and mountain peaks iced with it, and your red mittens encrusted with it, and showers of soft powder falling off pine branches into your eyes when you look up, and the crunch of it under your boots. Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Steve hated snow. There was always an argument when it came to booking holidays:
“Iceland?” you would suggest.
“Nah! Florida!” he would counter.

You loathed every one of those sweaty, mosquito- and alligator-ridden fortnights, when you dragged yourself up from your bed and away from the air con feeling like you ought to be in a hospital, and asked: “Where are we going today? Are there snakes? ‘Cause if so I’m not going!” Gah! One thing about Steve’s going that you can celebrate.

While you’re eating the stir-fry, a delicious concoction of prawns, mange-tout, spinach, bean-sprouts and spring onions, slathered in your home-made honey, chilli, garlic and ginger sauce, the whole fabulous bundle of flavours gently cooked in sesame oil, you feel a change in the air. You smell it. It’s like steel. That’s what you say, though others tend to ask what steel smells like. And there’s a sudden draught from under the back door that catches your bare ankles. The wind has changed. You’re about to say, when your mother beats you to it:

“It’s snowing!”

And it is, and when you turn to look, it’s attacking the damn huge glass windows and doors, thud, thud, like a snowball fight, and hallelujah it’s sticking to the sills and you have to stop eating and go to the window, where you put your hand against the glass to feel the percussions, and you say to your mother: “Maybe we won’t have to go away to enjoy the snow after all?”

The holes you’ve dug are getting covered up. You’ll have to wait until the snow melts to recommence digging. No matter. You’ll find the box. You’ve just remembered where you put it. How silly that you couldn’t remember before. It’s just beside the sundial, where there’s that loose slab. No rush. No matter. What are the works of man compared to the wonders of nature? Ephemera and dross. Shit and whimsy. Look how short a time it takes for the snow to bury this house of cards, this miserable dwelling.

You don’t kick yourself for your wasted morning. You’re too busy shovelling in the last of your stir-fry before you and your mother put on your boots and go outside.

“Let’s go down to the lake,” she says, smiling and, as she always does, making you feel grounded again, and real, and full of hope, “We’ll take a flask of brandy and some of your Christmas cookies, if you have any left. We can sit and watch the sunset over the water. It’ll do you good.”

The snow has taken over. Its victory is complete. As you trudge down to the lake behind your mother, putting your feet into her footprints as you used to as a child, you aren’t thinking about Steve, or embarrassing pictures, or how much you hate the house. You’re seeing grandfather and grandmother walking on ahead, hand in hand, the cottage behind them, watching the snow blush pink in the dying light of another winter’s day.

Jan McCarthy lives in Birmingham, England and is an alumna of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. She writes poetry and both short and long prose fiction. Since becoming a finalist for the 2011 Asham Literary Award she has written 21 books, including a series for children ‘Rainbow Tales’ and a trilogy of eco-magical realism novels about garden gnomes. Jan has been published in several e-zines and anthologies, including 2018 poetry collection ‘Persona Non Grata’ (ed. Belle Kenyon). Her most recently published work is a novel set in the 1960s-80s: ‘Blowing Smoke at the Stars’. She leads writing group Fun With A Pen and is also an award-winning community gardener. Website: www.janmccarthyauthor.com

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