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Kenneth Steven
The Ice

 

For the last three miles of the drive, once they were on the Hallion estate proper, Lewis felt as though he wasn’t there. Perhaps it was the motion of the car on the bumpy track, and the warmth of the vehicle with its steamed-up windows; it felt as though his hands and feet were melting away completely, and all he heard from far away was the hum of the engine.
Harry didn’t say anything either. He’d asked the odd thing when he met the boy at the station; quizzed him about bags and boxes and what could go where in the boot. But somehow he sensed there was no point asking more, about what Glenellen was like and how the first term had passed. Lewis sat there with his eyes fixed straight ahead, his crumpled coat still held under his right arm, there and yet not there at all.
It was only when suddenly they came through the dark forest of rhododendron and swung round to the left into a wide bend that the boy seemed to come alive. There was a glint of silver in the trees, through the birches, and he was wiping the misted window, making a hole to see.
‘Woodpeckers this morning,’ Harry said, filling the silence. ‘Two of them down at the feeders behind the Lodge.’
But Lewis was looking away left, through the thinning trees to the grey expanse of water. He was there and yet he wasn’t there, and when all of a sudden they bounded over a last bump and the tall white walls of the Lodge were finally visible, he unclipped the seatbelt and opened the door before Harry had properly stopped.
‘Will you wait!’ he exclaimed, but there was no point. The boy was running down between tree roots and rusted clumps of bracken towards the water. The engine fluttered and died. A scattering of mallard close to the shore took fright, scrabbled into the air, complaining. Harry sat there still, listening to the silence, watching the silhouette of the boy against the grey-white water, as the back door of the Lodge banged and a tall man in a tweed jacket started over the gravel towards the car. Harry got out in a hurry, began pulling out the boy’s luggage.
‘I’d like you to have a look at the fence above Croft Hill, Harry. The deer must be getting through again. Have you time?’
A violin in its dark case was the last thing to be brought out and put down upright onto the track.
‘Yes, sir, I’ll go once I’ve seen to the track. The water’s made quite a mess of it. A real crater.’
Suddenly the man looked down towards the water. The boy was still there, small and dark against the pale surface of the lake. Far out, over towards the opposite shore, was an islet, crowded with tall trees and dark shadows of undergrowth.
‘And how’s he?’ asked the man, not looking round.
Harry paused, watching him. ‘Seems fine. Very eager to get down to the water!’
They both laughed and Harry began carting in the bags. The man kept where he was and took out a cigarette; the blue smoke of it hung in the still air as he stood there. When the first bags went into the hall he heard a muffled voice from upstairs; Harry’s name was all he made out. Then his mother was there, looking round anxiously in all directions.
‘Lewis!’ she shouted. ‘Where are you, Lewis?’
It was so still her voice carried, echoed even over the water into the hill on the far shore. The boy turned and seemed to run even as he did so; it was as though there was no gap between his turning and his running. He flew up through the bracken in one sure line towards that voice.
The cigarette’s thin blue coil drifted into the still air.
‘Mind your coat, Lewis!’
He watched the boy as he ran, his eyes dark, but the boy didn’t look at him. It was as though he hadn’t heard. He poured himself straight into the arms of the elderly woman in her wide white skirts and checked jacket. She buried her hands in his hair.

He stayed in the couch in her sitting room until the clock in the hall fluttered seven times. He lay curled on the couch, his face turned away and buried in the cushion, as if fast asleep. She sat beside him a long time, her hand in the straight dark gold of his hair. He talked to her after he had stopped crying; he talked to her in angry fragments about the Latin teacher, about Saturday nights after prep, about the way the nurse had treated him after he fell on the stairs. But most of all he talked about swimming, about the stone cold place where they waited for the games master, and all that happened before he came. She felt herself there too with those thin, white boys as the shouting echoed around the walls and the voice shook those who couldn’t swim and dug into their helplessness. Her fingers ran over the soft skin at the nape of his neck and she felt, in spite of herself, a welling at the back of her own eyes. But she fought it away and brushed her hand fiercely over her eyes and he didn’t notice; she was glad he didn’t notice…
‘Lewis, it’s almost time for dinner. You haven’t unpacked a thing and I haven’t written my letter. Come on, your father hasn’t seen you either!’
She moved but he didn’t. She looked back at him, curled there on the couch, and suddenly she remembered him two years before, in the weeks after Kate had died. This was where he had come and this was how he had lain – just the same, only a little smaller. And she heard the memory of that crying she could never forget; the long, slow ocean of it, exhausted and broken, like some terrible song. He had talked to her too then, and that was how he felt safest – turned away, his head buried in the pillow and his eyes closed, her hand at the back of his hair. She had given him then a little white elephant her husband had once carved. He was dying when he made it for her; he didn’t say so but she knew it was to be a way of remembering him. Now it was for Lewis and no-one else, to hold when he was so low he could take no more. It was to be something to take back with him to Glenellen, to carry always in his pocket. She remembered that and she sat down again beside him, her hand suddenly even gentler than before. He noticed and half-turned, not understanding. His face was glassy and broken.
‘Listen,’ she said, taking hold of his hand instead. ‘I have an idea. The island on the lake.’
Now he had sat up, was watching her.
‘Your grandfather had a house out there, you know. It wasn’t much more than a cabin, but when he was a child he called it the Christmas House. One winter he stayed there, when there was enough ice on the lake. It was something he never forgot. Why don’t you go there this Christmas, with your brother and your cousin Winifred, if the ice is strong enough?’
‘To stay out there?’ Lewis asked, not blinking. ‘Would we be able to stay out there?’
She nodded, almost regretting what she’d said, as her son called from downstairs that dinner was ready, that it had been for twenty minutes.

Roddy came home the following Friday. Even though he was only fourteen he had persuaded Harry to let him drive up the track once they were off the main road. His father was out checking pheasant pens and met them on the track a quarter of a mile from the Lodge; he all but strung Roddy up by the thumbs from the nearest birch tree, his face pulped to a purple fury. He didn’t speak to Harry for the next two days, just left the sparsest scraps of notes for him in the porch.
Lewis felt confused when he saw his brother from the landing window. His heart thudded and he felt there were things to hide away. He felt confused and frightened, and the fact that he was frightened made him confused. But they laughed together about Roddy being caught on the track, and that was all right. He wanted to tell Roddy about the Christmas House, but he wasn’t sure, his mouth closed again.
‘What was it like?’ he asked instead.
Roddy looked up from his bags. ‘The corps training? Awful, as bad as it could have been. Fuzzy was in charge of my group. At least Macgregor wasn’t there, though.’
Lewis felt his cheeks sting with warmth. Macgregor took him for swimming. He was the worst of the lot, week after relentless week. Suddenly he smelled Glenellen again in the stale clothes that Roddy spilled out over the floor. He smelled school and wanted it gone, he wanted it to have no place here; he didn’t want it to spoil what was precious…
That afternoon he went running up Croft Hill in the last of the light. He didn’t stop until he’d got to the top, seven hundred feet up, and when he did he stood there panting, his palms on his knees. His father said you could see the whole estate, every corner of it, from the summit. All that mattered to Lewis was to see the lake; this was the best place, from here he had an eagle’s eye view. He dug out his grandfather’s precious monocular from its chestnut case, crouched in the long grass and forced his breathing to slow.
The magnified circle crossed the lake and found the islet. There was a beach on the near side, the one facing him. He followed what might have been a path further in, through birches and bushes to something round, something made of wood. He heard his heart. There was a window in the near side, small and thin, like the kind of window in a mediaeval castle or church. It wasn’t quite in the middle, the house; the very heart of the islet looked a tangle of trees and brambles. He circled the whole of it, saw at the very far end a line of stones, and there on the last of them a heron, hunched in his grey overcoat. It looked as though there had been a place for a fire there; he was sure he could see a rough ring of stones. All at once he imagined them out there long years ago, not in the middle of winter at all but at midsummer. The night was blue and the orange glow of a fire lit their faces; laughter echoed over the water and someone was daring to swim. They had pulled off all their clothes and crashed into the water at the south end of the island; they were splashing and laughing and the rest of them were watching, applauding.

That night Lewis was back at Glenellen. He was there in the wandered tangle of his dreams that was dense as the island’s jungle heart. He was back in the first week, on the first day of swimming. He could hear the drip of water as they waited, twenty-four white figures with their feet together, toes touching the pool edge. It was like the drip of time itself.
A prefect was there in his uniform. Mr Macgregor would be over in a few minutes; this was a chance to talk about a swimming gala to be held in October. It was an inter-house gala; they all knew by now the importance of representing their houses, didn’t they? Twenty-four heads nodded and the drip ticked, ticked. The boy’s black shoes echoed dully on the cold stone as he paced up and down at the deep end. How many of them would still be twelve on the thirteenth of October? A flutter of hands. How many of them were thirteen now?
Lewis was confused. He kept his hand in the air after the others had fallen, and the prefect noticed. The shoes stopped. His question echoed in the stone.
‘Please, sir, it’s my birthday today. What should I do?’
A slow smile spread over the prefect’s face. It was like a flame creeping across paper after lit by a match.
‘What should you do? Well, to begin with, you shouldn’t call me sir.’ There was a slow snigger from twenty-three figures; now they were watching and enjoying. ‘Secondly, you should come up here.’
Lewis was almost right down at the shallow end. He moved as though through water, his bare feet treading the shimmer of thin pools on the surface of the stone. He didn’t understand. He was freezing cold.
The prefect was grinning. He had bad breath.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Lewis. I mean Cameron.’
‘Right, Cameron, happy birthday!’
The prefect lifted him as if he had been no more than a bit of balsa wood, carried him up to the top diving board, and tipped him out into the deep end. Lewis came to the surface, swallowing and choking, swirling his arms to reach the side, the laughter and applause sore in his ears. He couldn’t swim.


That Sunday there was a party at the Lodge. The skies had cleared; the rain of the last ten days was over and the skies turned a luminous blue. There wasn’t a whisper of sound by the lake. Lewis cracked a twig underfoot, and the echo of it seemed to carry right through the bowl of the hills like a gunshot. It was going to freeze that night; it would be the first night of frost. He turned back and looked over at the islet; it was nothing more than a dark shadow hunched on the surface of the water, its taller trees searching like the fingers of twisted hands into the sky. This was going to be the first night of frost. His heart sang.
The boys ate at five at a table set for them by their grandmother in front of a dragon of red fire. By the time Lewis was halfway through his plate of venison and potatoes his shins were tartan with the heat of it.
‘Why can’t we come to the party?’ Roddy asked through a last mouthful of venison.
‘Because you can’t,’ his father said, looking out of the side window onto the track, a cigarette held in his right hand. He didn’t look round.
The cars came in soft curves up the track, their headlights turning the hillsides vivid gold. Voices and laughter were warm in the yard; plumes of white breath clouded the night, the night that had left diamonds on sills and roofs. Lewis watched from the window of their bedroom and all at once he missed his mother so badly it was sore as a rusty knife in his stomach. He felt the edge of the elephant in his pocket; he dug it into his forefinger. He yearned for her. Whenever he remembered she filled him like a gust of longing and he was blown out of himself. Nothing in all the world mattered then, nothing but that longing.
The cars shone in the yard under a cold ball of moon like a single eye. Everyone had arrived now; the rooms downstairs sounded strange with their river of loud talk and laughter, the clink of cutlery and glasses.
Roddy came over to the window and opened it.
‘Look,’ he hissed, and brought out a miniature bottle of whisky and a cigarette. ‘Got them from dad.’ That was in answer to the loud questions in Lewis’ white face.
Lewis didn’t enjoy either, though he pretended to. He was too terrified of the apparition of his grandmother at the door, and of the consequences. He felt dizzy after the cigarette and sick after the whisky.
He ate mints and brushed his teeth twice, scrubbed at his face as though scraping moss from stone, and gargled. Then he lay in bed long after Roddy’s breath had grown soft and easy, until the car doors began to thud and the good nights were loud in the darkness, until the last voices had gone from the hall. He padded out onto the landing and looked for his grandmother. He sat there ten minutes, crouching and shivering. At last she appeared, wheezing, her hand slow on the banister, and turned to go up her own stair.
‘How thick does the ice need to be, granny?’ he hissed.
She looked round, paused, not understanding for a second. Then her eyes lit up and she smiled.
‘Three and a half inches,’ she said.

John Cameron was up before it was light the following day. He hadn’t slept well; he had what his own father would have called a whisky head. He went out into the dark blue stillness of the morning, his coat buttoned against the first frost of winter. It must have been five below during the night. He heard something through the trees at the back of the Lodge, under Croft Hill. Ragged voices, the flight of half a dozen greylag geese. He heard them but couldn’t see them. He remembered the last goose he had shot the year before, over on the far shore of the lake. He had found it, still flapping and broken, its long neck stretched on the shore. It was trying so hard, flailing, and in that second he thought of Kate, two days before she died in the white lie of that city hospital. He looked back at the goose and something in him broke too.
He went down to the lake that morning. The bracken bristled with frost; sharp panes of ice crackled underfoot as he walked. It was beginning to grow grey; he saw the edge of the water as he came close. Except that it wasn’t water, it was a white skin of ice. He put out one foot and heard the crack of it as it broke; it was thicker than he had imagined, though a few feet out the deeper water remained black and clear. They had said it would be a long winter, and a cold one – perhaps Lewis would get his wish. An edge of smile twisted his mouth. His mother should never have put such a hope into his head all the same; how many nights of frost would it take to bring that kind of ice? They’d made the lake a hundred years and more ago for curling; back then it could be frozen for weeks through the winter, and the village well-nigh deserted for the match.
The cabin on the island, that had been built by his great grandfather for those curling matches. A place to serve hot toddy and spiced wine; a place to have a glowing brazier on days when the hands turned to raw, red, useless stumps. It was his father who’d called it the Christmas House, and several winters on the trot he’d gone out there as a boy to stay, taking everything he needed with him over the ice.
But how long since they’d had winters like that? John Cameron picked up a shard of the ice he’d broken and turned it in his left hand. Perhaps this was all they’d get. He skimmed it away and stood up, suddenly cold himself. The hills were beginning to appear out of the darkness. Up beside the Lodge he heard the soft riches of a blackbird’s song; it was so beautiful he had to pause there on the track, cold or no cold. And he remembered another blackbird, however many years before, that had sung in the back courts of the city when he was a student there. It had sung out of the darkness and he had made up his mind that when he was done with his studies he would go back to Hallion after all, that he had to.

‘Why is Winifred coming for Christmas?’ Roddy asked at breakfast. ‘Don’t they celebrate Christmas in Manchester?’
His father folded his paper and looked at him as a woodpecker might contemplate a nut. But he had no answer.
Their grandmother lifted the teapot to top it up with hot water.
‘Winifred is coming because her parents are going to the Lake District. They decided that for a treat she should come north to us, which is why it’s up to you two to make sure her time here is special.’
Lewis hadn’t seen his cousin since his mother died. She had been there at the church and had shaken his hand on the way out. He remembered her eyes, her very brown eyes – that was the only thing. She hadn’t said anything but she’d just looked right at him, as if she was saying something after all.
‘That’s not the reason Winifred’s coming here,’ Roddy said upstairs, thumping down onto his bed and yawning. ‘I heard gran talking to her parents ages ago; they’re probably getting a divorce. I reckon they’re going away on their own to get peace and quiet. Sort the whole thing out.’
Lewis thought about that, and about Winifred’s brown eyes, when he went up to the attic. He’d done his chore for the day, but he had to wait in the house until Winifred arrived at lunch-time.
The skylight window was covered with crystals of frost. He went over to stare up at it, that patterning of thousands of gems. He couldn’t see the sky through it, that was how thick the frost was.
He started rummaging through one of the old boxes on the floor, a collection of Cameron things that had found their way there from castles and terraced houses and old boats. There was a rubber ball that he bounced against the wall until it leapt over his head and started bounding downstairs. He couldn’t be bothered going after it. There were some of his father’s rugby shirts from Glenellen; there was his name in Gothic script along the inside of the collar. He felt funny holding those.
Then he pulled out a black radio. He was always fascinated by radios; you could twist a dial and hear voices from all over the world in different languages. Sometimes they were far away, as if they were trying to speak through a storm of crackling, and suddenly so clear it was as though they were there in the same room. The thing was bound to be dead; the batteries would have given out years before.
He clicked the dial all the same and bent down to listen. It wasn’t even a crackling, just a very far off hiss. For some reason he thought it was like mist, but that wasn’t a sound. He turned the dial very slowly; sometimes the mist lessened, and perhaps there was the ghost of a voice at the back of it. He kept on; bent right over with his ear hard against the radio, hoping.
Then suddenly a voice. A woman’s clear English; every word enunciated:
‘…for England and Wales it will be much the same story. About five or six in sheltered inland districts, but several degrees warmer elsewhere, especially along the south coast. In Scotland the weather’s set to get much colder as high pressure moves in from Scandinavia; tonight we could be looking at a dip to minus ten…’
Lewis clicked off the radio. He crouched there still, a beautiful warmth flooding his heart.

‘Train was an hour and a half late. Heavy snow in the Lake District.’
Harry staggered into the hall with a case, several odd-shaped parcels and a very thinly disguised whisky bottle which John Cameron helped to safety.
‘Winifred, you must be exhausted! Come in, dear, and welcome to the Lodge. You remember Roddy, and Lewis would have been a couple of inches smaller when you last saw him.’
The brown eyes were exactly as he remembered them. She was like a parcel herself, wrapped up in Manchester against the legendary cold of Scotland. Granny Cameron wound away layer after layer as Winifred smiled and watched; and the boys stood there like wounded caribou, not knowing what to do.
‘Come on, then! Show your cousin some courtesy! Off up to the study and get warm, Winifred, and make sure these two look after you. In fact, take Winifred to her room first, Roddy, and just come down when you’re ready. We’ll restore you with tea and cake!’
Later on, as it was getting dark, Lewis asked if she’d like to go down to see the lake. The brown eyes nodded. His heart thumped, but he felt all right, and he had to tell her. Outside, the stars were firing in sharp white gems above their heads. They had to stop in the fierce blue cold.
‘You can’t really see the stars in Manchester,’ she said. ‘Not like that.’
Her head was turned right up to look; in the light of the porch lamp he could see the gold hair that curled about her eyes.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You have to see the lake!’
He almost felt as though he had made it himself. He forgot to go as his father would have done, slowly and carefully; he went chasing down through the bracken and the long grass, forgetting completely that she was with him. But she ran behind him just the same, got to the shore a few steps behind him.
‘Out there’s an island,’ he said, the cold taking his breath away. ‘There, over to the right. And there’s a place on it called the Christmas House. If we get enough ice we can spend Christmas there, we can stay there.’
He looked at her to see how she’d respond. Her mouth was open, and she was looking, her eyes bright – he didn’t need to ask.
‘So you’ll come, Winifred, if it freezes?’
She looked at him, nodding as though he was stupid.
‘And I hate Winifred,’ she said. ‘Call me Winnie like everyone else.’

There was a morning when Lewis drifted in a no-man’s land between sleeping and waking. He knew he was not in the boarding house; he knew somewhere deep inside that he was at home. He had worked out the night before that another twelve days of the holiday remained; if he counted the drive back to the station and the train journey too it was twelve and a half. He had gone to sleep with twelve and a half days safe and soft in his head; they rocked him to sleep. And he dreamed that a real winter came, the sort of winter there once had been on earth, when forty or fifty degrees of frost locked everything in a white fist of ice.
He was at Glenellen and the school was caught in a vice-like grip. He walked through corridors rejoicing because there could be no more classes and everyone had gone. He found himself beside the swimming pool and the water had turned to one piece of solid blue ice. He would never have to learn to swim again. Then, all of a sudden, he turned round and Winnie was there. Her brown eyes held him and she began running. She ran out of the old building and its frozen pool onto the playing fields at the back of Glenellen. She ran into the trees beside the rugby fields and he could see the shape of the Lodge peeping out through the birches. He could see the grey-white shimmer of the lake behind. She had brought him back…
He felt someone shaking him and calling his name, but he wanted them to go away, he didn’t want to come back from his dream. But they kept pulling at his shoulder, and he opened his eyes to push them away.
‘Lewis! Lewis, it’s me!’ It was his granny, and he knew it was very early in the morning. The room was still half-dark; in the other bed was the unmistakeable hump of Roddy’s back. She set a cup of hot orange on his bedside table; he could tell by the scent. That was what she had made for him each morning when his mum was so ill in hospital and he had come back home from school. She had brought him hot orange that stung his lips and tongue, and warmed him all the way to his toes. And she had put her hand through his hair.
He struggled to sit up, his face crumpled with sleep. He could hear her smiling.
‘The ice is thick enough. You can go out to the island tonight.’

At five o’clock Harry went over the ice. They all went down to watch, and John Cameron was closest to the shore, the firefly of his cigarette moving in the blue dark. It was already eight below. He finished giving instructions about the path that led to the House, and how to get in, and suddenly there was silence and Harry set off. His boots thudded on the ice; the light of his head torch flickered this way and that as his shadow went out and became part of the night. Lewis thought of the story of Jesus walking on the water, and at that moment he realised that what he had dreamed might happen had happened after all. His father had been wrong; the ice had come and they were going to the Christmas House, now on the 23rd of December. Winnie was beside him and he could catch the scent of her, he was sure of it. He closed his eyes and felt such a well of happiness deep inside he almost lost his breath. This was going to happen.
‘I’m here!’ Harry’s call reached them; echoed over the ice and hung there in the utter stillness of the hills. And they came alive again, the listeners; they shuffled their freezing feet and murmured things to each other – John Cameron to his mother with the lantern by the shore, Roddy to Winifred so she laughed. Harry’s head torch flashed in the trees, a single beam of brightness in the middle of the night. Then, as they turned to go back to the Lodge, the light was gone too. Lewis was the last to turn. Harry had found the path.

It was Granny Cameron who came down to see them off. Lewis went first because he simply couldn’t wait any longer; his bundle of rugs so stacked in his arms he almost couldn’t see where he was going, and a kettle clanking from the rucksack on his back. Yet he tried to look all the same; not just ahead to where they were going but all around – up into the hill opposite, silver-plated with moonlight, the pines an eerie white with their jewellery of frost. He caught the wary eyes of four hinds in a clearing low down on the hill; their ears were like bears’, little half moons of listening. They watched and then, as if on cue, turned and rustled away into the trees and were gone.
‘Don’t go so fast! Wait for me!’ Winnie protested.
He turned at once, waiting and happy. The Lodge lights cast vague gold trails over the ice. Roddy had barely set out from the shore; he was trying to carry all that was left in one go despite his grandmother’s chiding.
‘Did you tell your parents?’ Lewis suddenly asked her when she’d caught up with him.
‘Tell them what?’ She kept her eyes on the ice.
‘About coming here. That we would come here.’
She shook her head. ‘They were busy with everything. I don’t remember. Look at Roddy! He can hardly walk!’
Her laughter rang out and echoed, and for just a second Lewis wanted to tell her she was breaking the quiet. She’d turned back a few steps, as though she wanted to share Roddy’s burden. Granny Drummond was slowly making her way back up towards the Lodge; she had whispered to him to remember every second.
So Lewis and Winnie got to the island first. It was the little beach he had seen from the top of Croft Hill. He was tempted to drop everything in one great heap and throw himself on top, so aching were his arms, but he bit his tongue and didn’t.
They fought their way between branches, trying to follow something that might once have been a path. That was the worst bit. There were things you couldn’t see, even in the steel whiteness of the moonlight, and Lewis fought his way forwards, stabbed by sharp bits of branches.
‘Thanks, that almost took my eye out!’ Winnie told him indignantly as a spray of shadows brushed back against her face. ‘Is it much further?’
He didn’t answer because suddenly they were there, in a little glade shut in by pine trees and dense undergrowth. They were there and the cabin was right in front of them. A plume of maroon smoke was rising from the little chimney in the middle of the roof; the fire inside popped and whined. Good old Harry.
Getting inside was more difficult. The door had broken and the only thing to do was to crawl in under what was left of it. Lewis looked inside, from the vantage point of his knees. The one long window; the red roar of fire in the grate. They left their burdens outside and crawled in first. Winnie went over to the window and looked out.
‘It could be Siberia!’ she breathed. ‘Look at it, Lewis!’
He stood there with her, his head bent close to hers. It was like a window in an advent calendar, he thought. The moon high in the sky over the trees and the Lodge; then the lake with its silver patternings, a white floor of whorls and paths.
‘Can’t you imagine wolves?’ Winnie said. ‘Wolves coming over that, hunting? You feel as if it could be any time, I mean ages ago. Like walking into a story, a story you once read.’
Then Roddy arrived, and for the next forty minutes they were struggling to bring rugs in, to light lamps and make up beds in the little space there was. All their toes would point in to the middle. Roddy built a great stack of wood for the fire, and somehow it smelled like mushrooms. The last thing they did was to barricade the broken door, and then the three of them were lying in the darkness, listening to the roar of the fire in the chimney. Roddy had said he would get up at three to make sure it was still going; he always woke up then anyway, and he would rebuild it so it still had life in the morning.
Lewis didn’t want to sleep. He wanted instead to lie in that place between waking and sleeping, the thump and hiss of the fire in his ears. They had got to the island; it had happened.
He fell asleep all the same, though his dreaming felt real enough. He woke and the fire was dead. The Christmas House was filled with silver light; it shone on the face of Winnie who was next to him, and on Roddy who was furthest away. She was facing him, on her side, and she might have been a silver sculpture. He could not even hear the sound of her breathing. He got up and slipped out of the House; he glided across the path of ice towards the Lodge that lay now in darkness, asleep. He went inside and found his fiddle case; he took the violin and went back out into the very middle of the lake and began playing. He stood there playing and all sorts of creatures came alive and gathered at the edge of the frozen lake; the deer came down to listen, and the pine martens with their gorgeous orange tummies, and the long-snouted badgers. And last of all, Winnie came out of the Christmas House, smiling, and he turned towards her, for it had been for her he really wanted to play.

The three of them were up at nine. Roddy hadn’t woken after all during the night and the fire was a mess of bitter-smelling ash and charred ends of wood. They could see their breath. The cold was sore; it felt as though parts of arms and legs weren’t there anymore. Lewis pulled on his clothes, juddering, his fingers like whittled twigs. They didn’t speak; even their mouths were locked and sore. Lewis crawled out under the broken door and saw that everything was covered in white as though some giant had breathed on the world in the night. The Lodge was gone; a carpet of mist lay on the lake and hid the mainland from them. He whirled his arms about him and bashed his red hands against his sides. Then he heard Winnie, turned round and saw her standing laughing helplessly at him. He smiled, shy, and the dream came back to him.
It took them thirty-six matches and a great deal of blowing to coax that fire into life. Then, for the next hour, they did little but sit round it in the middle of the room, watching the flames and waiting to thaw.
‘What’s that box under there?’ Winnie asked at last. She’d noticed something under one of the ledges, something they hadn’t brought with them over the ice. They looked, reluctant to move. Lewis finally struggled up, his feet still sharp with frost, and slid it out. It was wooden, covered with a layer of dust and ash and fragments of bark. It was like something that had survived a volcano, that belonged to another world entirely. He swept his hand over the top to clear it.
‘The Christmas Box,’ he read. He brought it over to beside the others, not opening it until he was there. Winnie brought out a velvet bag that rattled; she struggled with the drawstring, then poured into her hand a collection of sheep and shepherds and kings and angels. The three faces peered at them as Winnie spread them between her hands. They were made of white wood and were roughly carved, all about the size of a thumb.
‘I bet granddad did those,’ Roddy said, leaning over. ‘I bet he carved them,’ and he glanced at Lewis. ‘Gran still has his favourite knife, that one with the mother of pearl handle.’
And Lewis thought of the precious elephant in his pocket, made of the same white wood. He remembered the knife from his gran’s bedroom; they had been allowed to pick it up and look at it, but not take it away.
Winnie set the nativity figures on the stonework beside the fire. The light played on the carved figures. There were candles in the box, and one or two very old Christmas cards; half a dozen pinecones that were dry and fragile with age, that weighed as little as air. They brought out everything and found a place for it; they did so in silence and with a kind of puzzled reverence, as the mist swept at last from the lake and the morning turned a fierce white-blue, one single pane of light.

It was Christmas Eve and Granny Cameron brought down a box of skates from the attic. They were her own, and would do for Winnie, and after a lot of rummaging there was a pair for Lewis too. Roddy assured them that he would break a leg and that would mean no cricket for the whole next season; he was still cold and found Tosca and Rascal in the utility room, took them running up Croft Hill.
‘Watch that bit at the bottom of the island,’ John Cameron called over the ice. ‘I’m not sure I’d trust it. Keep to this bit, between the Lodge and the top.’
Lewis heard, but he was calling and whooping. He fell and it hurt but he laughed; he laughed at the blue sky above him and at Winnie’s face looking down at his. And Granny Cameron stood at the shore, her arms bound tightly against the frozen light, and she remembered how he had been just two years before – broken and bereft, like a bird that would never fly again. She had not wanted him to go to Glenellen at all; she had fought hard with her son against it. She well knew what was waiting for him there, how ill prepared he was to meet it. But she was never going to have the last word, and she always knew she was set to lose in the end. Yet here he was now, and that was all that mattered.
Later they trailed into the Lodge and drank hot mulled wine from round, green pottery bowls. Roddy came back with Tosca and Rascal and a story of a fox; after that they sat and grazed, as Granny Cameron put it – hot sprouts and ham, hot tea. They sat in front of a fire that would have roasted a musk ox, and outside the light gathered itself to a sheer crystal white, and Lewis watched it from the window as six woodpigeons ruffled up soundlessly from the trees on the far lake shore and blinked into the whiteness and were gone. His granny was suddenly there beside him.
‘May I come over and join you this evening?’ she asked. It was his permission she had sought, and he noticed. His face lit up.
‘Course you can. If you bring a present.’
She thought for a second. ‘Why don’t we open all our presents there, all our family ones?’
And so they did. Roddy and Lewis took an arm each because she was frightened of falling; John Cameron came behind with a sledge laden with parcels, and the bottle of his favourite malt which had come from Winnie’s parents.
The fire was coaxed into life and the candles lit so a lemony light filled the Christmas House. They blocked the gap in the door as best they could and it felt like being in an igloo. That was what Lewis suddenly thought; it was an igloo.
‘We should have had Harry with us,’ Granny Cameron said, looking over at her son. ‘We could have given him his present here. Still, I expect he’s perfectly content to be with his family tonight.’
‘And with a large bottle of brandy, if I know Harry Cartwright,’ John added. ‘What about presents then? If my arms don’t have movement soon they’re liable to get frostbite. Shall I be Father Christmas?’
Winnie had hers first, since she was the guest. There was a present she knew at once was a book; it was a copy of Swiss Family Robinson, something she had – but this was much nicer-looking, and she didn’t let on. The other parcel was soft and small; she squashed it to try to guess.
‘They’re going to come in pretty handy,’ her uncle winked, and that was true. They were sheepskin gloves, and Winnie put them on then and there. They were as good as little ovens.
Roddy got a new satchel for fishing, and examined every pocket and compartment. Granny Cameron had only brought her presents from the boys; Roddy had made her a bird table in woodwork; Lewis a toast rack.
‘Your grandfather would be proud of you,’ she told them.
‘Just don’t eat your breakfast from the wrong one,’ her son told her, throwing another log onto the fire. ‘There’s a parcel for you, Lewis, one from me.’
It weighed nothing, was wrapped in grey paper. He opened it carefully, remembering how he used to get a row for tearing the paper.
‘For heaven’s sake put us out of our misery!’ his father said, and Lewis felt his face reddening, thinking of Winnie hearing.
He opened the little box and it was a pair of swimming trunks; blue, with a white stripe down one side.
‘For when you can swim! Later this year!’
‘You mean next year, dad,’ Roddy pointed out.
‘All right, whatever, next year.’
Lewis said thank you, but he felt far away, as if someone else was saying the words inside him. He felt like a puppet; he felt as if the real him was getting smaller and smaller inside. The talk around him became one single voice; all the words melted together, became like the sound on a radio when the station isn’t clear.
Later that night, when the three island inhabitants had gone out and said good night to their visitors; after they’d barricaded the door again and built up the fire into a golden dome of flame, he took the swimming trunks and crushed them into the corner of his bag so they were gone, so they weren’t there any more.
‘Where are you, Lewis?’ Winnie asked, tapping his head playfully, as the three of them sipped sweet cocoa in the burning glare of the fire.
‘I’m here,’ he said, but he knew it wasn’t true all the same. He tried with all his might to clamber back into himself and be there, the only place he wanted to be. But he kept falling away; he kept hearing the drip, drip in his head that dragged him back. He kept remembering, and all he wanted to do was forget. His eyes burned when they went to bed at last, and he lay awake hour after hour, long after he yearned to sleep.

It was partridge they had that Christmas afternoon, when the Lodge clock had fluttered four times, and they sat round the table at last with its red napkins and white candles. If Lewis were to have craned his neck he’d have been able to see the island there in the bottom left hand corner of the window, but he was much too busy passing roast parsnips and potatoes, and talking to Mrs Jenkins, the widowed piano teacher who lived between the end of the road and the village.
‘I’ve always said that Lewis shouldn’t have let his piano lessons go. He was one of the best pupils I had – such promise.’
Granny Cameron looked older. Lewis suddenly realised that; she was sitting opposite him in her white dress with the topaz brooch that her husband had brought back from Ceylon after his war was over. It glittered like the blue of her eyes, but she was older just the same. He hadn’t noticed that before; it was as though it had happened while he was away, and he felt an overwhelming desire to hold her, not to let her go.
‘Lewis. Lewis!’
He looked up startled, met his father’s gaze.
‘Mrs Jenkins was asking what stage you’ve reached with the violin! Are you still with us?’
Roddy and Winnie and he drank cider. It gave him an orange taste in his mouth, mingled with the partridge and flowed into his head. He watched Winnie as she sat talking to his father; he was leaning close to her and she was nodding, her brown eyes bright. He knew he should look away but he couldn’t, and then she seemed to know and she glanced at him and their eyes met. Just a flash and he looked away, shy, and she and his father were laughing. He wanted there to be time; to go up into the wood on the other side of the lake to look for red squirrels, to take her up Croft Hill and let her find the deer with the monocular. If there was enough moonlight they could go sledging away up behind the Lodge…Suddenly he realised he didn’t want Roddy to be there and he felt bad. He only wanted this to last for ever, to go back and back over the ice to the Christmas House and the fire and the night.
The pudding was borne in by Roddy, its blue ghosts of flames blown out as he set it down in the middle of the applause.
‘Should you be having brandy butter?’ his father teased Winnie, jogging her elbow. ‘All this alcohol, you’re going to go home swaying to Manchester!’
‘And you’re going to go swaying out to your pheasant pens next Monday morning!’ his mother retorted, her whole face crinkling. ‘I think you’ve very few stones to throw!’
‘Guilty as charged!’ He raised his hands in mock surrender, and Mrs Jenkins told them of an occasion when an elderly minister had arrived at the house for a piano lesson, rather the worse for wear.
‘Poor man, it was Christmas. I think he’d had mulled wine from every guild and choir in the parish!’
Later they went through to the sitting room that flowed with Beethoven. Mrs Jenkins’ fingers rippled along the sleeve of her other hand as she listened, marvelling at the waterfalling notes. Lewis sat, leaning in to the fire in the cold silk of his shirt and tie. Roddy sat cross-legged between the couch and his grandmother, biting his nails. Lewis knew he was restless; he’d want to be off out with Tosca and Rascal, but he knew what his father would say.
‘Gran, can I get something from the island?’
Lewis had suddenly remembered the Christmas box that Winnie had found; he wanted to show her the figures his grandfather had carved. She might never have seen them before…
‘Of course, on you go. Mrs Jenkins has to get home soon, though, so come straight back and I’ll make tea. No, please do stay, Joan!’
He went down to the lake running, his feet hissing through the white bracken. He ran straight out onto the ice and he saw how the sky ahead was a mingling of white and blue and yellow. Suddenly he wished he could paint, he wished he could have captured that light. He stopped, there in the middle of that pathway of ice, gulping the air into his chest. He wanted to walk into that light, to walk into it and never stop.
He brought back everything in the end; somehow he wanted it to be exactly as when Winnie had found it and opened it. He wanted his grandmother to see just what it had been like. But when he came out of the Christmas House on his hands and knees, the box held awkwardly in front of him, the air was dark blue and the light had gone. He had only been a minute or two and yet it had gone.
The box was heavier than he had thought it would be. It banged sore against his thighs as he carried it back and he to walk slowly; he felt every step as he trudged up the hillside to the Lodge.
‘Lewis?’
He hadn’t seen his father in the shadows; he jumped with fright, didn’t reply. His father had come out for a smoke.
‘I want you to come back to the house tonight. It’s going to be milder by the morning. After Mrs Jenkins has gone you can go over and bring all your stuff back.’
The words echoed inside him. He felt his face burn with anguish and frustration and anger. He didn’t hear his own words as he railed at the back of his father retreating to the Lodge. It wasn’t fair, it was wrong, he couldn’t. His words melted into crying, into a tangle of angry sobs and words that no longer made any sense. He chucked the box on the ground and crouched down, folded into himself, weeping as he’d done when he was four. He couldn’t take this away; it wasn’t his and he didn’t have the right. He didn’t care. He hugged his arms about his chest and blinked down, searching, to the lake. But the island was gone, swallowed by dark.

Now the Lodge was quiet; all the lights were out. Roddy’s soft snore was like a whine; along the corridor their father had gone to bed at last. Lewis had heard Winnie closing her door and he had not been able to put her out of his mind. He remembered her scent and sat there on the floor in the darkness, thinking. Then he thought of the Christmas House and he glanced away, wanting to escape the prison of his own thoughts. He would drive himself mad. He had left last; by then Roddy had been out onto the ice with his heap of rugs and boxes, calling back impatiently for him to hurry. He hadn’t had time to say goodbye…
And there on the floor beside him were the swimming trunks. Their white stripe showed in the darkness of the room. He felt himself back at Glenellen on a morning in mid-October. He could hear Macgregor…
‘All right, there’s room for an awful lot of improvement; I’m pretty disappointed with most of you. Now, I have to be at a meeting in exactly eight and a half minutes, so out in two and shower. Ditchfield, you are my eyes and ears. One scrap of trouble and I want to know. Understood?’
‘Yes, sir.’
The plimsolls squeaked along the changing room corridor as Macgregor disappeared. Again there was the sound of the ticking drip of water. Then the outer door banged and the place hurt with the echoes of shrieking and laughter, the sound of water being cuffed and bodies dive-bombing the deep end. Ditchfield was shouting something at George Fife; shouting was the only way of making yourself heard. If only he’d come back, Lewis thought. If only he could hear.
But he didn’t. In a couple of minutes they began dragging themselves from the water, knowing the period bell was looming. As Lewis was clambering out at the shallow end, he felt hands at his shoulders pulling him backwards. For a confused second he saw a sea of faces above him as he was dunked in the water; their piercing shrieks hurt his ears as he went under and struggled up, fighting his way through them and gasping for breath.
‘Cameron, where d’you get your trunks? Your mother?’
The showers were already on when he got out of the pool. He could hear someone singing, then the sound of someone else farting. That started the rest of them on underarms farts, the loudest and the best. He went back to his cubicle as slowly as he could, dragged down his sodden black trunks and picked up his towel. He could hear his heart in his chest. He walked back into the sweat and the steam.
‘Here he comes, lads! Make way for the great athlete! Oh, I think you’ve dropped a muscle, Cameron. Aren’t you going to pick it up?’
He saw Ditchfield ahead of him, a whole head taller than himself. He was looking at him with nothing less than hatred. His eyes were black.
‘What’s that between your legs, Cameron? Is it real or is it just stuck on? Here, shall we find out, lads?’
Ditchfield had whipped down his towel from a hook at the side of the showers. Some of the jackals started clapping, cheering and clapping. On the other side and out of the corner of his eye, Lewis saw another towel whipped down. He glanced at the clock, willing the minute hand to move. There was still another four and a half minutes to the bell. They’d trapped him. He couldn’t get back to his own towel.
Ditchfield dipped the end of his in the water and twisted it round, taking all the time he wanted. He practised a flick, letting the towel crack in the air in front of him. The slow clapping increased; the murmur of expectation and delight. Ditchfield moved closer.
A towel came at Lewis from another corner and he reached out pathetically with his right hand. He felt the cold gust of air. A loud echo of mirth went up at his attempt to save himself. He glanced at Ditchfield, his eyes pleading now. He felt his own back against a cold shower top. He couldn’t go any further.
Ditchfield took aim at his groin and Lewis clutched at himself. The wet tongue of towel stung against his hands and was gone. How many seconds were there to the bell? How many seconds were there to go? The other towel came to distract him again and he swung round, enraged and humiliated. At the same time, Ditchfield took aim. The lightning fork flickered in the air and there was an audible crack as it hit. Lewis screamed and crumpled forward onto the tiles. A cheer rang out and echoed through the whole building.
Ditchfield turned to get dressed, waving his towel in victory. And as they melted away, the bell rang at last.

He held the trunks in his hands. If he reckoned there were thirty weeks of term each year, and he had two periods of swimming a week, that meant three hundred before he left Glenellen. There was no way out.
He heard something, a muffled sound from Winnie’s room, and he held his breath. It was ten past twelve; Christmas Day was gone. He listened and realised that Winnie was crying. It was like a soft, slow wave; it was like the way he had cried when his mother had died and he simply lay on his gran’s couch hour after hour. He had thought then of a story, the story of a child whose mother dies and who goes down to the underworld to ask if ever she might be restored. Oh yes, was the answer, if you weep a whole river of tears, and that river flows down here into the darkness, she will be restored. So he went back and wept until the river was sufficient. But it wasn’t true.
Lewis got up, the swimming trunks still in his hand. He held the door handle, turned it degree by degree so it wouldn’t break the hum of the house’s quiet. He knew how to do it right; the door sighed open and he went out into the corridor on soft feet. He listened for only a second outside Winnie’s door, seeing there was no edge of light showing from inside. He didn’t knock, just turned the handle and slid the door open.
She sat up in bed, trying to smudge away her tears.
‘I heard you crying,’ he breathed, and sat down at the very bottom of the bed. He began to see her face; she grew out of the dark.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, but he shook his head. That wasn’t what he had meant, that wasn’t why he had come.
She looked down for a second, into the net of her hands. Then she met his eyes again.
‘I was crying because of my mum and dad. I don’t want to go home because I know what’s there. This was like a dream, and now it’s over. They’re getting a divorce, and I have to go and live with my mother in America. She’s going back there.’
Lewis nodded and felt something break inside him. There was something he had dared hope, or dared begin to hope – like a bridge, or like ice even. He had dared believe he could walk over, that it would hold, and now too that was breaking. He was sinking and he could not even cry out.
‘When I go home, I have to begin packing. I have to get ready for a whole new world.’
Suddenly he thought of something, one small thing. He searched in his pocket and brought out the little elephant his grandfather had carved. He held it in his fingers, then stretched over, dropped it into her empty hands.
‘That’s for you,’ he said. ‘For whenever you’re really low, can’t go on. Hold it and believe. Never forget.’
He half stood and then he bent forwards through the soft dark of the room and laid his cheek against hers, just and no more. He caught her scent and closed his eyes.
‘Goodbye,’ he whispered.
‘Goodbye,’ she breathed, not understanding, her word more like a question. And then he had gone; before she could speak the words in her heart he had turned away. It was as though he swam through the room’s shadow, and flowed out of her world into somewhere else, and she had to touch her cheek to believe he had been there at all.
He went downstairs, his hand a hiss on the wood of the banister. In the porch he found his shoes and slipped them on. It was raining; a fine rain as thin as soft hair, covering the woods and the Hallion hills. He turned and went round the side of the track, started down the slope towards the lake through the frost-sculpted grass and bracken. They jagged his ankles like tiny swords. Just once he looked back, up at Granny Cameron’s window, but it was dark and empty, like a blind eye.
He didn’t stop; he went on down to the bottom and out over the ice, the way Harry had taken that first day. He looked for the Christmas House but it was lost in the dark and the rain, as if it had never been. He went on, his feet making not a sound, until he’d reached the rocks at the end of the island. The ice creaked. He smiled and stopped, began taking off his clothes until he stood sculpted white and pure in the moonlight. Then he put on the new trunks.


 

 

 

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