He glances over at Imogen. Her elbow had slid along the table, alcohol tipping her over onto a different axis. In the firelight, her arm shines, delicate and vulnerable, like a new-born giraffe’s leg.
Their hosts, Brin and Moira, seem to be up for going all night. What time is it? Hard to say. This far north, where the earth dances on its ear during the winter months, it has been dusky since just after lunch.
Brin speaks perfect English although he is Finnish. Moira speaks perfect Finnish although she is Scottish. One of those curious hybrid marriages with a precedence of over a thousand years. He pictures Brin rowing across the North Sea, shoals of silver herring dancing alongside his boat, a breeze fashioning rosettes into his animal furs. He pictures Moira, tall, the music of the deep murmuring through the long blonde staves of her hair, gazing across the choppy sea to the horizon. Drink always made him sentimental.
“It’s all about defining the individual’s place in society.” Moira is talking. Imogen nods sagely, drunkenly. “Families. Communities. Choirs, even. The thing itself becomes something other than a collective of individuals. One voice. A thousand voices.”
What is that woman talking about? Moira’s hands swoop and circle, shaping each phrase, measuring Imogen with her wing tips as if his wife were no more than a piece of bloody carrion in the road.
Maybe it had been a mistake to bring Imogen here.
Brin had been effusive when they’d first met a month or so ago. He’d pressed his business card into his hand, insisting that he and Imogen visit.
He’d recounted the meeting once he’d got home, largely to offer a kind of distraction against Imogen’s distress. Says his wife is some kind of a …” He’d wanted to avoid the word ‘therapist’ and settled on ‘healer’ instead. “Counsels people, that kind of thing.”
“Could go, I suppose”, she’d shrugged in reply.
“Do you mind if I go outside for a smoke?” he asks, waggling a cigarette packet as alibi. He avoids Imogen’s hateful look. “Like one?” Brin declines the offered cigarette but leans against the door frame, sheltering under the out-shot shingled roof, keeping him company.
The snow is still falling, softening the outlines of fallen tree trunks and their hosts’ Mitsubishi. The sky, seen through the few sparse pines, is formless, empty, having given all its light and substance to the ground below. So much whiteness coming out of so much greyness.
“Imogen’s having a pretty hard time of it at the moment”, Brin observes sympathetically.
“Yes”, he sighs. “Listen. I’m sorry to bring all our woes with us.”
Brin speaks, “Let me show you something.” He follows in his host’s footsteps out beyond the tree line. “I made a snow house. A kind of igloo. Climb in.”
Brin’s voice becomes muffled through the thick blocks of snow. “Get yourself up onto the upper level. The cold sinks to the bottom.” There is barely room to stand up and, arms outstretched, he touches the walls of the oddly-shaped structure. The walls are not pure white, but contain smears of earth, pine needles, twigs. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The snow around him has a different quality to the benign flakes that are falling outside. Massed, compressed, cut into blocks, it has a harder edge, a brutish quality. What would happen if it all fell in? Would he suffocate?
He sits on the ledge, head bent slightly by the curve of the ceiling, the only sounds the rustle of his coat and his rapid breathing. Suddenly he feels like a fugitive.
Brin returns and he starts to make his way out. “No. Stay there. I’ve brought you a few things. Stay here as long as you like. You can dig yourself out when you’re ready.”
Meekly he takes the items and watches as Brin backfills the hole.
In the torchlight, glints in the icy snow sparkle back at him like stars in the heavens.
How long is he supposed to be in here?
He sits for what seems like a long time. Strangely it’s not that cold. Except for his feet.
Words, phrases, sounds, thoughts fly through the upper reaches of his mind like crows in a tree. He tries to grab one, to give himself something to focus on in the bluey whiteness. They fly away, startled, cawing.
Thirty eight is too young to die. What sort of a world lets this happen to a mother of two boys?
A memory flashes through his mind, just one of the thousands of strange, unsettling, bewildering memories since that day.
His thirteen year old nephew scrabbling at the wall when the Consultant told him and his younger brother that they had done everything possible. Such bare naked grief.
What should they do, he and Imogen? They hadn’t asked for this. They had their own lives to live – lives meticulously planned, budgeted for, consciously executed. They had aspirations. Children are … messy … unpredictable … selfish. What if one of them went off the rails? Who knows how the trauma of losing their mother would affect them.
Yet, how could they refuse?
He pulls on the fur coat and the trousers. Should he eat the cheese now and save the chocolate for later? Or a piece of chocolate now to keep him going? What time is it anyway? What did that damned creep think he was doing slamming him into a place like this?
The wine is good though.
He drinks. He dozes.
When Brin comes for him in the morning, he nods ruefully at the yellow stain in the floor.
“No worries mate.”
He emerges from the world of ice, purity, petrification into the warmth and colour of the cabin. Imogen is smiling at him. They hug and, as he holds the back of her head in his outstretched fingers, she nods. Just the once. Almost imperceptibly. But he knows what she’s saying.