Prize Winner @ Wrexham Literary Festival

ICE – Award-winning story from Carnival of Words, Wrexham’s Literary Festival, 2017

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. 

Could he plead tiredness, ask to be excused and go to bed?  Possibly not.  Their hosts 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.  Where had they had lunch, anyway?  His brain resets for a brief second while he scans backwards through the day. 

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.   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.”  

Brin pours more vodka into Imogen’s glass.  He recognises the brand.  Forty quid a bottle.  It’s good stuff.  Imogen is blinking too much, perhaps seeing this cabin in a series of shutter-quick stills – the roaring log burner, the rather chichi display of native art, the bookshelves.   “It’s all about our moral purpose.  How we see ourselves.  What aspects of ourselves society reflects back to us.  And whether we accept or reject that crucible, if you like.” 

What is that bloody woman talking about?  Her 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.  “Sort of Gestalt Reworked, if you like, although I think you will find that, as a concept, it is frightfully démodé these days.”

Really?  He could not give a flying … Maybe it had been a mistake to bring Imogen here. 

Brin had been effusive when they’d first met at Aberdeen a month or so ago.  Planes were snowbound.  He’d pressed his business card into his hand, insisting that he and Imogen visit.  “People always say they find themselves once they’ve spent a few days in our rustic retreat.” 

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 his hosts, waggling a cigarette packet as alibi.  He avoids Imogen’s hateful look.

“Of course.  Let me.”  Brin escorts him to the back door. 

 “Like one?”  Brin declines the offered cigarette but leans against the door frame, sheltering under the out-shot shingled roof, keeping him company. 

“Lovely place you have here.”

“Thank you.  We love it.  It’s becoming more common in Scotland now, this off-plan, return to the forest kind of thing.  We snapped it up when we heard it was for sale.”  Brin mentions a price for the two storey wooden shack no more than ten strides long and eight strides across.  “We come up here when we can.  There’s a few hereabouts.”

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.  You’ve been very kind to have us to stay.  This is not what you expected.”

“Don’t worry.”

A change in the light shining through the window behind them and a rise in the register of voices.  The women are on the move.  A door opens.  Imogen must have stirred herself. 

The men stand still and silent until it goes quiet again.

Brin speaks, “Let me show you something.”   Not wanting to sully the snow, he pinches the cigarette stub with his thumb nail, returning it to the packet, and follows in Brin’s footsteps out beyond the tree line.  “I made a snow house.  A kind of igloo.”  They tramp round the mound to where a long-handled spade stands cock-eyed in the snow.  Brin shovels through until a tunnel appears.  “Climb in.  There’s only room for one.”

Brin’s voice becomes muffled through the thick blocks of snow.  “Climb up onto the upper level.  It’s warmer.  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.  “Shuffle yourself upwards and you can get quite warm.  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 a 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.  Is that what he is?

Brin returns and he starts to make his way through the escape hatch towards the outside world.  “No.  Stay there.  I’ve brought you a few things.”  Together with a shovel, Brin hands through a fur coat, waterproof trousers, a lamp, cheese and wine and chocolate, rugs.  “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 with massive gloves. 

In the torchlight, glints in the icy snow sparkle back at him like stars in the heavens.  Would no-one hear him scream? 

How long is he supposed to be in here?  If it is some kind of macho test of Brin’s, then he would bloody well stay all night here.  What time is it anyway? 

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. 

Karen.

Karen.

Karen.

Thirty eight is too young to die.  What sort of a world lets this happen to a mother of two boys?  It’s the twenty first century for God’s sake.  Haven’t we gone past the point of freak accidents?

He rubs the wall.  The coldness of the snow makes his bare hand warm.  His billowing breath glazes the surface of the wall, turning it to ice. 

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 hospital doctor told him and his younger brother that they had done everything possible.  Such bare naked grief.

Karen.

Karen.

Karen.

What should they do, he and Imogen?  They hadn’t asked for this.  They had their own lives to live – lives that had been 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?  Jesus H Christ.  What fucking time is it anyway?  What did that fucker think he was doing slamming him into a place like this?  Playing big boys games like he’s some kind of a guru with a wunderkind of a second wife?  Or third wife, even.

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.