None of us had been snowed in before, and we weren’t expecting it this time. Nobody would have come to the party on Stefan’s farm, had the weather forecast been more explicit. We had obligations of our own – our homes, our families, our work. And we were stuck at Applecross Farm. Jess, an almost-out-of-control diabetic had only enough insulin supplies to last her till that evening. She lived down in the village but was small and delicate and had recently undergone an appendectomy. She was more than usually vulnerable and needed a mercy mission, so Stefan had searched out the key to the large living room windows. It was now possible to jump, or drop, just a foot or so from the window into the crispy soft snow. Who was to do it, and how?
A tiny wipe revealed a glimmer of something unexpected.
Issy dabbed a little more. Usually at this stage in the restoration process things were fairly predictable. Carefully stripping away years of crusted, split varnish brought surprise only at the occasional glimmer of newly uncovered topaz or aquamarine amongst the other murky hues.
Restoration was slow and steady: an indoors archaeology uncovering brush by brush, and dab by dab.
Issy directed her eyes towards the rain-spattered window and the poster on the wall in front of her weekday worktable. Its message: ‘Life is not about the pursuit of pleasure, but about the pleasure of pursuit’ always resonated.
Eyes refreshed, she looked down at the table again – and all was as she’d left it. The painting still glinted like raindrops on the windowpane, but the glint wasn’t the expected flaky yellowed sheen of aged varnish – it was an inner glow, seeming to originate inside the paint, as if tiny LEDs had been implanted. Of course, she’d seen pictures like that in the local household bargain superstore, but they were generally corny Christmas scenes in which stars glittered festively, and this late nineteenth century portrait wasn’t one of those.
She scratched her head: implanted lights certainly weren’t something she’d encountered before during the 11 years she’d worked at the museum.Puzzled, but not concerned, she opened the window next to her desk, and picked up her bag. She desperately needed air, and, even more desperately, a coffee break.
As she made her way to the door and to the welcome chattering release of the museum’s staff room, her phone summoned her with a gentle harp arpeggio – a ring tone specially assigned to Karen who’d doubtless be asking what time she’d be finished work, so they could meet up for their date. Issy reached for her phone to answer, already excited at the prospect.
‘Issy, are you there?’ said Karen’s voice, the accent a little more midlands than northern. It was a voice that Issy loved, and a voice she longed to communicate with, but each time she tried to pull the phone from her pocket, it evaded her hands. She reached down to it but it appeared she was no longer solid, or was it that the phone was no longer solid?
‘Issy,’ she heard, ‘Issy, come on, love’.
How could she hear Karen without having touched the phone? And why couldn’t she pick it up? She looked around for inspiration but all she could see were those twinkling lights. Even from her position at the door she could still see them lightening and darkening, flickering and falling, like a chaotic Christmas tree. And there was a sound too, like a tiny occasional but quickening beep.
‘She’s there,’ a voice said. A man’s voice this time – rich and bassy. ‘Keep talking, Karen, all the evidence about unconsciousness indicates that she’ll understand everything you say, even if she doesn’t remember it afterwards.’
Unconscious? Issy spoke the words ‘Help me, Karen!’ but silent screams came instead.Her shout was an empty action, devoid of muscular activity, though rich in intended compulsion.
‘Issy, you were in an accident,’ said Karen, hesitantly at first. ‘At work. Do you remember? There was a bomb inside a painting you were restoring. The experts say it’s been there years, just waiting to be triggered. You were so lucky you weren’t next to it at the time, but you have cracked your head pretty badly. The police think the frame must have fallen to the floor in a gust of wind from the open window, and the fall triggered the explosion. But you’re OK, Issy. There’s nothing majorly wrong with you, so you have to wake up. Please…’ Karen’s voice wobbled as she spoke, and her hand which had been holding Issy’s moved further up her arm and began shaking her lightly.
‘Come on, kid, you can do it. It’s me, Karen. You’ve got to come back. You owe me a dinner date. Pizza and Stella – your favourites! And I have an important question to ask you.’
A few minutes of thoughtful silence.
‘Sod it,’ said Karen, ‘I’m asking you now. I’ve been working myself up to this for six months’. She cleared her throat. ‘Issy, will you make me the happiest woman in the world, and agree to be my wife?’Silence. ‘I’ll keep asking, you know. Twice a day every day, if need be.You might as well say yes now.’ Yes, yes, yes, yelled Issy, unheard.
Uncomfortable, the doctor left, soon to be replaced by a student nurse. He was tiny, with a freckled nose and an infectious grin. ‘Would you give us half an hour or so, please? Just to take her to x-ray and do a few tests. Go for a coffee. We’ve got your number and will ring if anything changes.’
‘Coffee? I just had one, but I guess another won’t hurt.’Karen bent over Issy’s unmoving body and laid a gentle kiss on her forehead. Issy sensed the tiniest aroma of coffee on Karen’s breath, and re-remembered the twinkling lights inside the picture. Her hand reached out for coffee. Her eyelid twitched. Her finger flexed. Her fingers clasped, not a coffee cup, but the waist of her partner.
‘Hey,’ said Karen. ‘Hello there. How are you feeling? Do you want some water?’
‘Yes,’ croaked Issy, blinking and squeezing her eyes together. ‘Yes.’
Karen began to move to get the water. ‘No, don’t,’ said Issy.
‘I’m just getting you a drink.’
‘I don’t want a drink. I’m accepting your proposal.’
‘I think you two need to be alone,’ said the nurse as he left the bedside.
‘I think we do,’ said Karen, stroking Issy’s shoulder.
‘Yes,’ said Issy again. ‘And I’d kill for a coffee.’
Stefan himself volunteered. There was no real question of anyone else doing it. This was his house. It was his window. His driveway. His set of waders. He waddled into the kitchen, causing somewhat of a giggle from the rest of us: five sniggering partiers, still a little drunk from the night before. We’d turned up the previous night for Stefan’s bi-monthly dinner party and stopped over, as was usual. Applecross Farm had plenty of room and was convenient for work, but when I’d woken chilled and shocked into life by the unaccustomed atmosphere in the farmhouse at around 5am, it didn’t take long to work out what was causing both. I’d sat staring out of the window till the rest of the house began to rise to oohs and aahs and comments of ‘Bloody hell, have you seen outside?’. The snow had taken us all by surprise by its appearance and by its tenacity and depth.
We’d all experimented at the back and front doors but the task of budging the snow was enormous. It left us with one option – that Stefan would dress in his angling gear in an attempt to get to Jess’s house and pick up her medical supplies. And Jess was getting anxious.
We shouldn’t really have been that worried. Certainly Applecross was a farm in a rural area, but was situated only about a quarter of a mile from the nearest village accessible via a rocky lane which led directly to an A road. All Stefan had to do was to tramp through the snow for a few hundred yards from his living room window to the main road. Our pathway to medical supplies would be gritted and clear and the village shops would be even be open. Jess’s house wasn’t far off and Stefan had her key. Even if that didn’t work, Stefan was somewhat of a celebrity in the village. He was friends with Hugh Whittington, a local author. Hugh was bound to be home, snug and warm. Smug and warm with a medicine cupboard full of spare insulin– enough to keep Jess going for a short while.
Still, I thought Stefan was brave. He’d always been the alpha male – the one who kept this disparate group of forty-somethings in touch, more than 25 years after we first met at Manchester University. Friends till we die, we’d predicted. None of us could believe that our first death would come about so speedily. Emma, a 19 year old undergraduate, had taken her own life by throwing herself from a landing window at the halls of residence. Nobody had known she was even unhappy.
Perhaps I was the only one amongst the remaining six of us who was thinking such sad thoughts as Stefan lowered himself carefully out of the window like a huge black rubber duck. He landed in the snow with a gentle crunch.
‘How deep is it?’ Jess called out.
‘Up to my thighs,’ he said.
‘Top or bottom thighs?’
That was deep. But Stefan was well dressed for the weather and was a hardy, outdoorsy soul. Not a one of us was anxious that he’d not be back.
So, the five of us settled on the corner sofa. There was me – I’m Irena – sat next to my best friend Jess, and then there was the third female of our group – Issy. The men were Stefan (outside) and remaining on the sofa deliberating whether to add to the central heating by setting a fire in the wood burner, were Mark and Janesh. None of us were in relationships, either with each other or elsewhere. I was kind of surprised our strong friendships hadn’t ever blossomed into something more, but was relieved too. The prospect of things going wrong between us was more disturbing than I cared to admit.
Janesh was tall and still retained strong traces of his Indian accent, despite having lived in Manchester for thirty years. ‘I suppose we just wait?’ he said, hovering on the edge of the sofa. Would he get up? Wouldn’t he? Everyone shrugged or nodded and basically ignored what seemed to be a potential call to action. We were warm and safe and knew Stefan wouldn’t let us down. Janesh pushed his body further back on the sofa and flopped.
It hadn’t struck me to try my phone. I pressed the screen, swiped, held it above my head, wiggled it round, but there was no signal. ‘Has anyone else got a signal?’ I asked. It appeared that everyone else had tried as all shook their heads.
‘What about the landline?’ asked Issy. What about the landline indeed. Where was the phone? We all set about looking and it took us a good five minutes. Janesh shouted us into the kitchen. The cordless phone was in the pantry on a shelf next to an unopened tin of olives and a bottle of vermouth. I pressed the phone’s green button. Nothing. That meant the broadband would be out too. How were we all going to let our employers know where we were? It was already 7:30am. I’d have been on my way to work already.
Issy shrugged and sat at the kitchen table. ‘He won’t be long anyway. I think we should have all gone together and got the bus in the village.’
The remainder of us looked towards our fallen comrade who had gamely struggled between rooms with us but who could definitely not be expected to tramp through snow so deep we couldn’t even make out the shapes of our cars outside. Issy and Jess had been a little on edge with each other since we all arrived the previous night. It showed.
A sudden loud noise came from the cellar: a growling, mechanical yet organic sound. The cellar was where Stefan kept wine, preserves, tinned goods and the like, to see him through the winter. It seemed the logical thing to investigate. As I got up to look, Mark held my arm. ‘Irena, don’t…’ Then he stopped and let his arm drop. ‘What the…?’ His gaze was directed to the outside through the kitchen window. ‘What is it, Mark?’ I asked. When he didn’t answer we all flocked around him.
The body of Stefan was crumpled in the snow at the bottom of the hedge, only 100 yards or so away. He was unmoving and the sky’s colour was no longer the shade of bright blue-grey snowy days. It was instead a deep, dark, purple-red: the colour of congealed blood. The same colour that was haloing around the body of Stefan and, as we watched, ourselves unable to move, we saw our friend lifted by light and then we saw him no more.