Saturday 15 December 2018

The Untrodden Snow

by Paula R C Readman

stale wine

‘Please, Megan I need more time.’ I shouted down the phone even though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t.
‘Mum, we’ve already talked this over. I need to get my life back on track. It’s a great opportunity for me. One, I’m sure, Dad would’ve wanted me to take. I need you to be pleased for me.’
‘I am. Of course, I am,’ I lied.
‘It’s been five years, Mum. We agreed that I would help run the business until you were back on your feet again, but if an opportunity arose then I had to take it.’
‘I know, but I thought you would’ve waited until I’m…’ I paused, not trusting myself.

 Five years ago, my world fell apart when Laurence left. No, not just my world, but Megan’s too. I couldn’t really expect her to put her life on hold forever. It’s supposed to get easier, but it doesn’t. All it does is turn you into a hard-headed dragon that roars selfishly at everyone around you.
I wanted Megan at home because she reminded me so much of her father, not just her looks, but her strength too. Oh, she’s right, I needed to regain my independence, but America. It’s too far away.  
‘Look Mum,’ she said, her voice cracking. ‘Once I’ve found a place of my own, you’ll be able to join me.’
I knew she didn’t want to upset me, but I couldn’t stop the feeling that she was deserting me too.  I wanted to say I’m stronger now, but I didn’t feel it in my heart.
I heard her exhale, and felt her trepidation, but I held back not wanting the selfish dragon to scream down the line, ‘it’s all right for you, but ‘what about me?’
‘Mum, think about it. A change of scenery will do you good.’ Her voice lightened. ‘You can come and stay for as long as you want. When the time is right, maybe you could sell up and join me here. Anyway, at least think about it. I know it has been hard on you, but Dad would’ve wanted you to enjoy your life.  Please remember Mum, I miss him too.’
‘I know, Love.’
Her voice softened. ‘Mum, you really need to start thinking about yourself. You’re still young.’
‘Old head on young shoulders,’ I muttered.
‘What? What did you say, Mum, I couldn’t hear you?’
‘Nothing darling,’ I said brightly, not wishing her to feel guilty about leaving.
‘Mum, they’re calling my plane. I’ve got to go now.’
‘Promise, you’ll call me as soon as you touch down.’ I said mustering a cheerful voice, wanting to give her something positive.
‘Of course I will. I love you, Mum.’

Normally the ‘Rambler’s Rest,’ would’ve been fully booked in the winter, just as it was in the summer months, but I wanted Christmas alone, so I allowed the bookings to dwindle.  It surprised Laurence and I just how many people wanted to escape Christmas, so they booked a holiday away from it all.
For the first time I understood their need to be on their own. I hoped the time I spent alone would allow me to start planning a new future. As I stood by the French windows, at the back of the property, wine glass in hand, staring at the vast, empty moorland, I found myself watching the first snowfall of the season. As the imperfections of the world disappeared under a white quilt, the snowflakes became a flood blocking out even the pale light of the full moon.
 I found comfort in knowing that no two flakes were alike. Their uniqueness mirrored my own situation. I wondered if Laurence was still out there. Was he watching the snowflakes falling too? Had it really been five years since our last hurried goodbye and his promised return?
‘Time changes everything,’ I muttered, drawing the curtains, shutting out the coldness before crossing to the fireplace, and adding another log to the dying embers.

As the fire erupted back into life, the log spat a spray of red and yellow sparks into the dimly lit room, reminding me that another Christmas had passed with no words from him.  I poured another drink, and stretched out on the sofa, offering up a toast to my past.
Megan was right; I couldn’t expect her to stay forever.
I sipped the wine, not really tasting it and watched the small dancing flames reinventing themselves, flaring up and then dying back. I tried recalling the sound of Laurence’s voice, the touch of his lips and warmth of his embrace.

With a sudden shudder, I woke.  The early morning sun leaked through a gap in the curtains, revealing the neglect that surrounded me. Among the detritus of discarded rubbish, dirty plates, and cold cups of tea that littered the dusty surfaces, my eyes settled on the collection of Christmas cards.  They reminded me how much love there was still in my life.   
I ran my tongue around my mouth trying to free it from the stale taste of the wine before I sat up.  Aware for the first time, I was still on the sofa. I rubbed my forehead and tried to remember the last time I had given the place a damn good clean.
A little unsteady, I stood, and kicked the empty wine bottle away. It rolled under the sofa as if it too was ashamed of what it had done. I staggered to the bathroom and splashed cold water onto my face. As I patted it dry with a musty smelling towel, I looked up.
The mirror above the sink revealed another unwelcome friend. She stared back at me with questioning grey eyes.
‘I know,’ I answered her. ‘I’ll take a shower.’
Stripping off, I stepped under the shower. The force of hot water took me back to the long hot summer when Laurence and I first met.  

I’d just turned sixteen and was on my first holiday without my parents. Tall, lanky, and unsure of myself, I stayed with my widowed, Aunt Iris. She belonged to a ramblers club.
One day as we waited outside a pub on the moors for the rest of the group to arrive, a tall, suntanned lad with fair hair and the brightest sky-blue eyes I had ever seen, joined us. As Laurence’s parents and my Aunt chatted together, he strode happily along beside me.
During that time, I learnt how passionate Laurence was about the untamed moors and the natural world around us.
‘Oh Sally, this landscape is so beautiful,’ he said as we followed the footpath ahead of the others. He would point out things of interest to me, from butterflies to flowers, stone circles, to circling buzzards.  Soon I realised I had a rival for his love, but I understood why he loved her so. 
I couldn’t compete with her wild beauty, but I acknowledged his passion. She wasn’t a selfish lover, sharing a deep sense of freedom with all who travelled her many footpaths and bridleways under a clear blue sky where the only sound heard was that of a skylark descending, with nothing around for miles, but a sea of grasses, heathers, gorse, and of course the sheep.
‘Never be deceived by her gentle beauty,’ Laurence warned me as we wandered along hand in hand.  ‘There’s many hidden dangers among her dips and hollows.’

After stepping out of the shower, I rubbed my hair dry and smirked into the mirror asking, ‘Why must all good things come to an end?’
It would’ve been far easier if he’d fallen sick and died, or even divorced me, but the sense of loss I suffered is too hard to bear.  Death is final. There are no ifs or buts. And, divorce, at least you can shout at them. With Laurence’s disappearance, there’s no body, no one to shout at, just many unanswered questions.

For years, Laurence and I had promised ourselves a winter holiday at the ‘Rambler’s Rest’ in Yorkshire, where our love first began. On Christmas morning, Laurence teased me awake. 
‘Are you awake, Sally?’ he whispered, running his fingertips down my chin, neck and between my breasts.
‘Please, Laurence,’ I mumbled sleepily, ‘allow me time to wake up first, my darling.’
He kissed my lips, parting them with his tongue.
‘Not that, my sweet, as nice as it is.’ He laughed and kissed me again. ‘Let’s go for an early morning walk.’

We wrapped up warm against the bitter, cutting winds and headed out.  Our footsteps the first to break the virginal snow as we set off as soon as it was light enough to see. By midday, we headed back.  The wind had dropped and the sun, though cold, was bright.
As we removed our boots in the utility room, Mrs Williamson popped her head round the door. ‘When you’re ready, please will you join me in my private dining room for Christmas dinner?”
‘Of course, we’d love too.’  After showering, Laurence and I got dressed up for the occasion. As I dried my hair, my husband commented on the falling snow.  
‘We got back just in time,’ he said as the snow obscured our footprints. 
‘Thank you for allowing us to join you,’ I said as Annie showed us to our seats.  
‘It’s my pleasure. So nice to share my last Christmas here with you both, especially as I’ve known you two for such a long time,’ she chuckled.
‘Your last Christmas?’ Laurence said, his fork hovering in midair.
‘Yes, since my husband passed away, my son suggested now would be a good time to put ‘Rambler’s Rest’ up for sale. The time has come for me to do something else. Travel maybe. ’
Laurence’s face lit up, and I knew what he was thinking.
‘I’m sure it’s a lot of hard work on your own.’ he said, putting down his fork.’
‘Oh it’s been worth it. I’ve enjoyed every day and will miss waking up to the wonderful views, and of course all my lovely guests. I hope whoever buys it enjoys the same life I’ve had living here.’  

No sooner than we had climbed into bed that night, Laurence hugged me tightly. ‘I’ve been thinking, Sally, isn’t it about time we followed our hearts and…’
I placed a finger on his lips. ‘I knew it…you want to take over ‘Rambler’s Rest’?’
He nodded, and kissed my fingertips. ‘Downsizing and escape city living will do us both the world of good and our daughter too.’ 
Before Annie handed over the keys to us, she explained, ‘being so isolated here, anyone caught out in bad weather finds out quickly it’s an unforgiving place. Be prepared for every occasion. Keep plenty of stores in as you can be cut off for months.’

‘Rambler’s Rest’ became a real family affair and a Mecca too for the dedicated walkers, who stay every year. During the summer months, some of Megan’s university friends helped us out to earn extra pocket money.
After a few mild winters, Annie’s warnings seemed unfounded until one bitter cold morning five years ago. If anyone had warned me what would’ve happened that day, I wouldn’t have believed it.
By late afternoon, it had warmed slightly. Busy in the kitchen sorting out evening meals for our guests, I had the radio on, checking the weather forecast.
‘The weather’s on the turn. The sky’s full of it.  Laurence said, coming in with a bucket of coal and an arm full of logs. His blue eyes shone bright as his cheeks and nose from the cold outside. ‘Hmm, it smells lovely in here.  You’re making me feel hungry.’
‘Have the Highsmiths returned yet?’ I asked, peering through the serving hatch into the dining room.
‘I haven’t seen them. The Roberts are in the lounge reading, and the Longmans went to get ready for dinner.’ Laurence said as he added some coal and another log to the range before emptying the rest of the coal into the box beside the burner.
‘I’m worried about the Highsmiths.’ I checked on the turkey.
‘I’m sure they’ll be back soon.’ He looked out the window, at the gathering storm clouds crossing the pale grey horizon.
‘I just hope so. Anyone can see there’s bad weather on the way.’
He gave me a peck on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying. The smell of your food will have them rushing back,’
I began loading the dishwasher. ‘They arrived with no all-weathers-gear and went out this morning wearing designer trainers. Being Londoners, they might think it’s like a stroll in Hyde Park on a winter’s day.’
‘I’ll go and have a word with the others. They might have seen them. Hopefully they’re keeping to the main paths.’
Laurence returned just as I was emptying the dishwasher, his face ashen.
‘What is it, love?’
‘The Roberts said they had seen them up by the old alum works.’
‘No, what were they doing up there.’
‘The Roberts told them to start heading back, but they wanted to finish exploring the works. What a pair of idiots!’ Laurence snapped. ‘I’d best go and see if I can find them. To make matters worse it’s snowing now, Sally.’  
‘Laurence, you can’t go on your own. It’s a good hour’s walk from here.’ I followed him through to the utility room.  
‘Hopefully, they’re heading back. Call the rescue team, and warn them. Let’s hope we don’t need them.’ He pulled on his hiking boots, waterproofs, and an insulated jacket before grabbing a survival backpack. On opening the back door, a blast of cold wind hit us. ‘I’ll be back before you know it,’ he said and disappeared out into the swirling snowflakes.

With no last goodbye kiss, not even an ‘I love you.’ Laurence rushed off to look for the Highsmiths. I forced the door shut behind him, and hurried to make the call.
‘Roger, it’s Sally from Rambler’s Rest.  Laurence has gone to the old alum works to see if he can find two of our missing guests.  Yes, he knows the weather is closing in, but he didn’t want to leave them out there. Be careful Roger, I’ll see you soon.’  
After feeding the rest of guests and supplying hot drinks to some of the rescue party who arrived back tired, cold and unsuccessful in their search, I stood, by the window, hot chocolate in hand, as night drew in.  
Through the snow flurries, I saw a group of figures, little more than crude outlines, their heads down, battling against the wind, which was trying to erase them.  Once they crossed the threshold, I searched among the familiar faces unable to find Laurence.
The Highsmiths huddled together by a roaring fire, holding mugs of hot chocolate while through chattering teeth they thanked everyone for finding them. The rescuers stood round despondently, waiting for the storm to break so they could look for Laurence. After a week of searching, they finally had to call it off.  
After thanking them all, I went onto the snow driven moors and screamed out his name, begging for his return.

With Megan’s help, I focused on the business setting our loss to one side. With a bright smile, I sent my guests off hiking for the day, though secretly, I hoped that one of them would stumble upon Laurence’s backpack, mobile, or even a boot. Anything that would let us know what had become of him, but of course, they were here to enjoy their holidays, not to free me from my sadness.
The first winter without Laurence left me feeling like Catherine Ernshaw as I longed for the return of my Heathcliff. Sometimes, when I was preoccupied with cleaning, a flash of brilliant light would illuminate the room. Dashing to the window, I was sure I could see his familiar form striding across the flat, valley floor towards the stile that marked our boundary.
As he clambered over, he would give me a wave, his signal to have his glass of brandy ready by the roaring fire in the lounge to take the chill from his bones.
Now dressed, I jammed the wet towels in the washing machine, and noticed the calendar. Three months had passed since Megan went to America. She’s right about a change of scenery, though I’m not sure whether America is what I need right now.
 Outside, I hugged my coat to me. The sharp, cold air, takes my breath away as I stroll towards the stile. A sudden ‘kiew’ makes me look up.  Overhead a buzzard circles, soaring high against the white sky before disappearing from view.
‘Oh Laurence, my darling.’ I let my tears fall, knowing the time has come.
‘Kiew, Kiew,’ echoes across the icy landscape, pulling me out of my thoughts. Above the buzzard had returned, and with it, its mate.
As they circled, I acknowledged them, knowing that the moorland mistress has won. I whispered, ‘He’s yours to keep.’
I climb back over the stile, and see the signs of rebirth in the melting snow as blades of dull green with the drooping heads of snowdrops nodding gently in the cold breeze. They are the ones Laurence and I planted during our first spring here so long ago.
Maybe it was just my imagination, though I like to think its Laurence’s way of letting me know it is time for me to move on.
He may be lost to me, taken by the mistress of the moor, who has his heart, body and soul. Wherever Laurence’s final resting place is, he is not alone, with the buzzards, curlews, and the standing stones.
I hurry back to the warmth of the ‘Rambler’s Rest.’ Tomorrow, I shall wish Megan a happy New Year, and ask if she’s ready for a visit from her Mum.
Like snowflakes falling, I’ll take things one step at a time, and who knows where the future may lead me.   

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