Extract from A Spell in Winter...
Mon Amie Isabelle
Why is it so cold?” I ask.
“I think it’s going to snow again,” she says. “Pressure’s dropping, I’m afraid.”
It’s already growing dark. The sky is like lead. Time for me to go.
“Can we move this one? It’s an Artiay for theatre.”
“This old bed – could we shift it before you leave? – I’m getting rid of it,” my mother says.
“It looks unused to me.”
“No, we’ve had it donkeys’ years.”
Like everything in my parents’ home, it seems to have lasted longer than it was ever meant to do. I’m at my mother’s house again. It’s Sunday afternoon, the end of a dutiful weekend. I’ve been coming here more often since my father passed away.
“Well, that’s another little job done,” my old Dad would say, as he pottered happily through his retirement, ticking off his tasks. But a legacy of dilapidation awaits my visits: the list was longer than he thought. I’d like to find an odd-job man and arrange for a home help to call, but my mother won’t hear of it.
“All this place needs,” she claims, “is a damn good clear-out. I could never do it properly when I had your father to look after. Now are you going to give me a hand with this bed? One, Two, Three – Lift! That’s it.”
My mother is enjoying herself. I recognise a note of grim satisfaction in her voice.
I find these visits disconcerting. The house is full of half-forgotten treasures, whose rediscovery can prompt a sudden stab of loss. There are old dinky cars; a clockwork cabin cruiser I’d thought long-gone, which my mother conjures for my sons; an electric guitar – my adolescent pride and joy – in chipped and faded sunburst, with maple neck and nickel frets. There’s a glass lighthouse, filled with layers of coloured sand; a china highlander in garish kilt; a little brass hand-bell, with the names of the gospels in Latin around the edge; a thistle sealed within a paperweight of glass. I find these worthless objects, which once held their own special magic beneath my childish fingers, now seem curiously displaced by moves my parents made since I left home. The little oval frame, with gilt ribbon and bow and the face of my grandmother; surely it was always over the piano? And the glass biscuit barrel should be on the mahogany chiffonier in the hall. That’s where we are, in our frames of polished brass and silver; my brothers and I, with our graduation caps and gowns, our brides, our children bearing family resemblances. I can hardly believe the familiar knick-knacks surrounding our younger selves have managed to evade the slow changes which have altered us. Nothing remains to me from those lost years. Yet here they are again, waiting to speak about the past they shared – waiting patiently to survive us all.
The bed is something I don’t recognise, but my mother would never leave it like that. She has the entire provenance of all these everyday things at her fingertips.
“We had this in Langmuir Road,” she says. “It’s good quality. We got it from Rowntree’s.”
The names of the old-fashioned shops she once set so much store by mean nothing to me now; at best, the dim recollection of a hundred dull Saturday afternoons, which have blurred into one. I live in a distant city and the town I grew up in has been transformed; one by one, they’ve been swallowed up by modern chains.
“We bought it for your French friend...”
And with this, she pauses. There’s something at once speculative and knowing in her hesitation, like feeling for an old wound on a pet, to see if it still bothers him enough to snap at you. It does: in my mother’s hands, the past is a blunt instrument.
“Isabelle,” I prompt.
“Ye-es, we bought it that Christmas your friend Isabelle came to stay.”
My friend Isabelle gave me head-lice and a yeast infection. My friend Isabelle gave me a blowjob behind the bathroom door. Isabelle was Jewish, as well as French; wayward and precocious. She smoked too much and swore like a trooper. She was svelte and smart and stacked. My friend Isabelle was just too much, too young – hardly the daughter my mother had been waiting for – if she'd been waiting for one at all.
I’m in that old house again, the one on Langmuir Road, looking down at us from the first floor landing, as she must have done; seeing our giant shadows cast by the fire in the darkened lounge. I watch them merge into one. And I feel suddenly resentful; wishing our ending hadn’t been there, in that house, under her curious gaze. The years fall away and I want to shout defiance, to wound; the way we used to shout at each other when I still lived at home.
“That was the Christmas I nearly married her,” I want to yell; “I wish I had. I should’ve done.”
I want to tell her I’ve spent a decade-and-a-half wondering whether I made a terrible mistake.
After all, I am my mother’s son.
It’s very, very quiet.
Far off, someone is calling me.
I’m in the Lakes again, on a walking holiday. Usually, we go to the Dordogne, or Tuscany, and it’s the first time I’ve returned to this landscape in nearly twenty years. After our frantic life in town, the silence is surprising: there’s only the muffled gusting of the wind about my ears, like the beat of my own blood, and a strange mournful sound like human keening; a curlew, I suppose.
As I climb steadily, mesmerised by the even pace of my own feet over the close-cropped turf, I can see only the shadows of clouds crossing the bare backs of the fells, turning a tarn below me from amethyst to slate. And for one strange moment, I’m transported back in time; I’m still the teenager I was the last time I walked these hills. I don’t know how long the confusion lasts, but for a just a while, I’m filled with an overwhelming feeling of hope and optimism. It’s all right, after all, I tell myself; as though my entire adult life has been a youthful reverie from which I’ve just awoken. It’s all right – I haven’t lost her yet – we haven’t even met.
Cheered, I walk on with renewed vigour and a lighter step, until the voice calls out to me again – a thin sound, soon whipped away by the wind – a voice I suddenly recognise. I’ve been walking too fast and left my eldest son behind. I wait as he runs up the path, a familiar surge of tenderness returning at the sight of his blond head bobbing above the bracken. I remember that we’re both grown up, both married now, Isabelle and I. She has children, too. They’ll all be in Corsica, this time of year. There’ll be a card from them waiting for us, holiday photos posted on Facebook.
My son catches up at last and puts his hand in mine.
“We’re nearly there,” he observes, looking up at the craggy summit ahead. “Hold on,” he adds; as if I was the child in need of encouragement, and him the man. “Hold on – it won’t be long now.”
So I don’t say anything to my mother, in the end. Once you have a family, you can no longer say such things. For how can you truly want to change the past? Children can't be undone.
There’s a final struggle with the bedstead on the stairs. It catches at the corner, where they turn.
“It’s arrested,” she says. Then: “stand clear!”
Clumsily, she pushes the bed. Suddenly released, it slides down and hits me in the chest and I stagger to the foot of the stairs. In the end, we leave it standing in the hall. It’s going to one of her causes: a charity auction for the local dramatic society, I think. My mother goes to put the kettle on.
I brush the dust from my clothes.
I can almost hear a voice telling me that’s another little job done.
I don’t know why it was make or break for us that Christmas; but now she’s got me remembering, I realise that, yes, it could have gone either way. We were what you’d call ‘intense’, I suppose; it was always all or nothing for Isabelle and me. If we could have been married in that tiny church we discovered in the snow, I think we would have done it. But we closed the door and climbed the hill again and the moment slipped away without us even noticing. At that age, you think nothing is irrevocable; but it is, of course, it is.
I find I’m vague about the exact layout of that big Edwardian house, to which the family moved after I’d already left for university. I think we were in adjacent bedrooms at the back. She’d creep into my room at night and slide her long legs in beside me; no wonder that superfluous bed still looks so new. All I really remember is the two of us staying up into the early hours of the morning, drinking too much and doing a good deal of crying in each other’s arms. We were barely out of our teens – just kids, really – by turns callous and overwhelmed by unfamiliar feelings. After all those letters; reams and reams and reams of them, all those walks and all those talks, I think we’d finally run out of words.
“Don’t try to talk,” she says.
Don’t want to, anyway. I never did want to talk about the others, though I may have wanted to punish her for them. Perhaps that's why we parted; after years of feeling hopelessly gauche in the wake of her precocious sophistication, I think I sensed my power at last. And I don’t want to talk about those gruesome holidays we spent together; when the sum of our accumulated expectations seemed to weigh us down and we’d chafe and grate on one another like cogwheels out of synch. Then, just before we had to part once more, there’d be a dreadful fight, inevitably followed by tears and forgiveness and long, long afternoons of making up. Suddenly, we’d be swept away again and the parting, when it came would be, as always, bleak and terrible. The spate of desperate letters between Lyon and London would recommence.
“We’ll be friends,” I say to her. “We’ll be loving friends... always.”
“Always is a long time.”
Yet here it is, so soon.
And we are still friends: as much as families and careers, the steady accretion of our everyday lives, and a seven hundred-mile separation permits us to be; indeed we are. Because how could you ever stop loving someone like Isabelle?
I felt newly grown-up, I suppose, with my first real job and my rented flat off Maida Vale. She wouldn’t finish graduate school for years, but I wanted a full-time, live-in lover my own age. I’d have told her it was just a boy and girl thing if I’d dared. Now I see I wasn’t too old for her at all; I was probably too young. I’d read too many books, I’d heard too many songs. Even the tears I gulped back in her arms were the delicious, easy tears of childhood. And in the end, I could part with her only because I was so young myself: all fired up, as you are in those years, by the profound significance of your own life; confident of its unimpeded race towards new experiences, new lovers, you’re sure wait just ahead.
“I’m afraid you’ve been hurt,” Isabelle is telling me. “Can you remember?”
“Yes. I remember now,” I answer her; “I did it to myself.”
“But you hurt me, too,” she says. “You really hurt me back then, Jacky.”
It’s the only time I’ve ever heard her complain about the way we parted.
Years have passed. We’re in Paris again. We’re leaving a restaurant, with a crowd of other people. During the meal, two friends of hers have described a recent ski-ing holiday.
“We borrowed Caroline’s summer house in the Massif,” one man was saying. I think his name was Philippe. “It was huge, that place, but huge – and no heating, none at all – except this crazy little gaz-thing. It must have been the coldest week of the year. My God, it was cold. We all shared one room, didn’t we Catherine? We had to go to bed under a dozen blankets and once you were in, no one dared get out again to pee... What a holiday.”
“I borrowed a cottage in winter, once,” I said without thinking; “there was no fire and the first night there it snowed and snowed. I’m sure it must have been the coldest night of the year...”
“When was that, Jack?” my wife asked.
“Oh years ago,” I answered airily, “before we met. Isabelle will remember... “
“No, not me, I don’t,” she protested. “But what was the ski-ing like this year, Philippe?”
She didn’t want to talk about it, apparently. Yet she still wants me to know it’ll always be there, between us. For as we stand together on the kerb outside the restaurant, Isabelle gives me a sidelong look, part tenderness and part reproach.
“You really hurt me back then, Jacky,” she says.
She softens the J and adds the Y to make my secret name, the one she’d use, with that pleading, little-girl voice of hers, when she’d wake me up, blurry-eyed in the middle of the night, to demand I make love to her.
They’re calling my name again. Perhaps they’ve finally decided on a club.
“I think it’s going to snow”, she says, looking at the sky.
I’ve borrowed a cottage in Sussex from somebody at work. That’s why it’s so cold. I can barely feel my hands, my feet. I’d imagined us bathed in the glow of candlelight, with the food and wine we’d brought, casually sloughing off our clothes before a blaze of logs. But there’s no fire, and not even a working chimney. As darkness falls, it gets colder and colder. There’s just one inadequate electric heater. Only half in fancy, we imagine ourselves discovered, frozen in each other’s arms. We shiver ourselves to sleep beneath the bedclothes, wearing most of our outdoor, as well as our indoor clothes.
Suddenly, it seems too bright. When we wake together, disoriented by the muffled silence of the countryside, we can’t understand why so much light is pouring into the room; an even brilliance bounced from ceiling and walls. Clutching the duvet around us, we shuffle clumsily to the window, breath coming in misty gasps. There are trees of frost on the panes, like winter mornings in childhood. Through them we see the distorted image of an altered world, the rounded backs of the Downs tidied and softened by a blanket of snow. We pull on borrowed wellingtons and stumble into the dazzling morning. Icicles hang from eaves and guttering. As far as the eye can see, the midwinter olives and duns have been resolved into monochrome, like a photograph; hedges and trees all stark and black against the pristine fields.
Hand-in-hand, we climb a bridle-way up the escarpment behind the house. It’s hard work. We’re puffing and panting as we stumble, knee-deep in virgin drifts; until, finally, we reach the crown and we’re peering into the next fold of the Downs: a flawless miniature world laid out at our feet, as yet undisturbed. There’s a tiny Romanesque church directly below us, beside a buried road, and we begin to wade down through the snow towards it. When we finally reach the door, the church is open, but deserted, cold as a tomb; rough rendered walls, plain windows, dark wood. On the wall above the ancient font an Anglo-Saxon mural has been discovered: the dim figures of Adam and Eve, frozen for a thousand years on the point of understanding everything they’ve lost.
Our cheeks, our ears and noses are pink with cold, but I don’t think Isabelle has ever looked more beautiful than she does on this, our first morning in a new world we’ve found. We make the only footsteps in the glittering snow, our breath around us in clouds. I feel elated, inspired. Once again, I know we’re at the very beginning of everything. The next day, we're heading north from London, to stay with my family over the holidays. By mid-afternoon, we’re on the train from King's Cross and it’s already growing dark. The whole country seems to be covered in snow. I bury my face in the warmth of her neck, between hair like honey and the sheepskin collar of her coat, and fall asleep.
I never want us to arrive.
I’m getting into the car again. I experience a powerful sense of deja vu; it’s funny to be leaving, when I'm sure I can remember the shimmering lights dancing towards me in the driving sleet. But then, I’ve done all this before, so many times: my mother waving me off at the end of another dutiful weekend.
“You’ll bring the family, next time?”
I nod, wave back, letting out the clutch. The sky is like lead, there’s a bitter wind. I’m anxious to get back. On the long drive through the gathering dusk, I try to bury the feelings my visit has stirred up. I think about Helen and the kids. I plan my week ahead. I find it doesn’t work. I've never wanted to dwell on that final Christmas I spent with Isabelle, the Christmas when I lost her. There were so many other times, better times, before. But for some reason, I can’t help coming back to it now; back to that last journey we took together, when we travelled north on Christmas Eve.
As vividly as though she were next to me, I can still recall the warmth and scent of her body under her winter clothes.
“Stand clear!” they say.
And with a sudden jolt, we’re off, rushing through the darkness. Isabelle has her face turned away from me; she’s looking out, through the window, at a snowbound world. My own eyes are closed. I have often imagined this before; but now I can feel her beside me, I know we never have to go back home, and we need never part again. And I realise this is what I’ve always wanted; this is the most perfect moment I have ever known.
It’s Christmas Eve and we’re on a journey together; one which will never end: a long, long ride through the night and snow.
“No response. One last try, then...”
This is the most perfect moment.
This is the most
This is the
“Stand clear, everybody.”
This is the train. We’re rushing through the dark. I turn to her and I bury my face in the warmth of her neck, between hair like honey and the sheepskin collar of her coat.
“Why is it so cold?” I ask.
“I think it’s going to snow again,” she says.