A bit of a New Year's Story -- Mari Howard
|Footprints in the Snow...|
Extracted from The LabyrinthYear, a novel by Mari Howard...
(Main characters: Max & Jenny, who are visiting Max's family for Hogmanay;
Daze, Jenny's step-sister, an artist:
& David, Director of a retreat house...)
New Year’s Eve: (Jenny describes...)
...Today, we’ll move over to the Manse: the Mullins siblings are already there. We’ve been lying low, so that the old Hogmanay custom can ‘surprise’ Alisdair. It’s as if the Mullins family express some undiscovered gene for secretiveness. Ironic, since it’s me who’s keeping a secret from them this time.
Anyhow, twenty to midnight, we’re all here, wrapped warmly, packed and ready to go. Snow has been falling all afternoon. Now, the moon’s out, and stars sprinkle the sky. ‘Your vehicle or mine?’ Euan asks.
‘Ours: we’ve the seats for the bairns,’ says Max.
Meanwhile at St Hildegard’s, Oxford... (David and Daze...)
‘Here we are.’ David turns the car, the headlights illuminate a signboard, St Hildegard’s Church and Retreat Centre, and looming bushes, lining a short gravel drive. The drive widens out and ends in front of a dark hulk, randomly set with lighted windows. Daze momentarily imagines Northanger Abbey-type adventures, mad scientists at work, or even poor women of the night, forcibly brought here to learn virtue by washing laundry.
David parks the car to one side of the arched front door.
‘You thought I was a homeless person, didn’t you? To pick up and be sorry for?’
‘I didn’t know who you were. I could see something must’ve gone wrong, possibly with your celebrating the end of 1996.’
‘Where were you going, or coming from, then?’
David turns off the ignition. ‘I had half a plan, but then, we met up.’
‘No probs. Think of yourself as the other half. Of the plan.’
Daze opens her door and looks properly at where she’s going to have her hot drink and wash her sore, throbbing knees. The main building, with leaded windows, a low-slung roof like a hat pulled well down, and bulging bays, is in Arts and Crafts style. The wings are crass extensions, obvious modernisations, added at random over a period of years. One, glass to the ground, is better designed.
David unlocks the arched main door. As they enter, Daze is dazzled by bright lights, white paint, and a shining floor. She smells polish, cooking, and, bizarrely, incense. There’s a Christmas tree, an antique table, pigeonholes with labels, and a statue of Mary. Daze sniffs the wonderful pine scent of the tree, as David hunts through a pigeonhole marked ‘Director’, then sticks his head around a door marked ‘Lounge’ and murmurs to the people within. A woman laughs loudly: for a moment, Daze feels the laughter’s directed at her. David tells someone named Eta (like the Basque separatists?) he’ll not need a chaperone. More laughter. Then he leads off towards his part of the place, swinging himself out of his leather coat and long, Charlie Brown woolly scarf, as he walks.
He waves towards a door. ‘Bathroom. You’ll find TCP in the cupboard. Tea, coffee, chocolate?’
Daze likes that: no sentiment, no offers of help. ‘Hot milk, plain. You got that?’ Why choose hot milk? A memory?
The spacious bathroom is predictably cold. She finds the TCP and some cotton wool pads in the cabinet, and pokes around a little to see if there’s anything more she can learn. High protection suncream (back of the cabinet) is just in date. Toothpaste is the whitening kind, which probably doesn’t work anyhow. Shower gel claims to be good for after swimming in a chlorinated pool. Shampoo and conditioner are the same matching brand.
She looks at her jeans: more badly torn than she thought. Her knees are a mess: there are cuts, and bits of ripped, grazed skin. The grazes are dotted all over with granular dirt, a blue bruise is coming out on each knee. She gets to work with TCP, which stings mightily.
Oh shit, it’s all too complicated. The guy’s heating up a kiddie’s drink for her in his kitchen. What next? He ought to be an ogre: he isn’t her type, he’s religious rather than spiritual, he’s part of some hateful plot. He’s clean and seems to look after himself; he’s sexy in a kind of a neat, precise, organised way.
Clean-up completed, she lets herself out and looks up and down the corridor. The hallway’s floored with quarry tiles. Doors to left and right. A hallstand: his coat, a jacket, a big dark cape, and lots of hats. A tall earthenware pot, inside it two umbrellas and a professional-looking alpine walking stick. A set of golf clubs in a tartan holder. Very neat and organised.
She hears a door opening. ‘Kitchen. In here!’
Limping round the corner towards the voice, Daze is gobsmacked. A huge, bright yellow, finned surfboard is mounted longways on the whitewashed stone wall. Crikey: unexpected.
She heads into the large, warm kitchen. ‘Yours? The board?’
He hands over her drink. ‘You’re a surfer?’
‘Best beaches, in Oz. Spot of whisky in that hot milk?’
‘Cornwall, me. God, you’re a surfer.’ Daze holds out her mug.
‘Two seconds.’ David pauses, finding the whisky in a cupboard, dotting a dram into both their mugs. Daze blows on her drink, thinking about this new side of David. The blowing makes waves. ‘Some people find it unexpected. Milk okay?’
‘Sorry, diverted by surfing. Yeah, milk’s good. Ta, as they used to say.’
Amicable silence is disturbing: she isn’t sure enough of what a religious guy might or might not want. Whatever else, if not for David, she would definitely not have slipped on the icy cobbles, and been found sitting on that step like a prize wuss. She’d have been planning the Fun Day, arranging building works at the print shop, and looking forward to pumping Jen’s Aunt Val about Jewels’s whereabouts.
She refocuses, pulls out a chair, and sits at the round pine table. He responds by seating himself half-on the table. Close enough that she’s wafted with the scent of his aftershave. ‘What did you do before? How far did you get? Teaching kids on gap years? Competitive stuff?’
‘A bit of instruction, surf school for kids, and yes, gap year students. Quite a bit of competition work. I belong to ASP—Association of Surfing Professionals?’
‘Got the awards to prove it? Why the dog collar then? Why the bloody homeless?’ David shrugs. Daze comments, ‘Nice board. Great lifestyle. Sun and sea. Paid well? Perks?’
She may or may not be being ironic. Her emotions are tangled: David could be a challenge, a conquest, but the priest part might get in the way. She’s already noticed his neat bum, hooked on the table edge, and his swinging foot, in the black leather ankle boot. Mentally, she undresses him. Bronzed body, fit and firm. Don’t even go there—he’s the enemy. Also, perfect body might be twinned with a complicated mind.
... While back in a small market town, in Northumberland... (Max telling the story...)
As we park, the Manse looks dark and silent. I turn off the ignition, and swivel round in the driving seat, addressing Euan. ‘Mam is aware we’re doing this?’
‘They’ll be in the family room, at the back so he doesn’t hear anything.’
Very quietly, I open the door, and step down into the snow. Jenny hands down the basket of traditional gifts: Margaret fusses, ‘Do you have it all there?’
‘He’ll have the whisky, it’s a double malt.’
‘You’ve the coal and the shortbread?’
‘I’ve it all in this basket. And the fruit cake.’
‘The one I made,’ Jenny adds. She made it for Euan and Margaret, but they assumed it was for the first footing.
It’s for me to approach the house alone, first: a light goes on in the hall, Mam flings the door wide after a deal of unlocking, ‘Oh, Max—pet—Happy New Year!’ She extends her arms to include us all. ‘Perfect.’
And here’s Dad, still in command of everything from his wheelchair. ‘He’s the colouring and the build for it, aye.’
‘As you had.’
As Mam steps around him, and we actually hug, most unusual but maybe less rare than when we were bairns, I have this odd feeling she’s thinking not of me, but of him. As he was. And I am feeling how small, how slim, Mam is.
‘This is a surprise!’ Dad bellows. Sounding utterly taken in. ‘And you’ve brought the family!’
‘Of course they have. Now, you’ll have to move so everyone can come in and we don’t all freeze on the doorstep.’
Margaret steps up, with Zoë in her arms, Euan arrives with the parcels, everyone greets Dad. ‘Father Christmas,’ Zoë says, rubbing her eyes.
‘I knew it was,’ Alice pronounces.
With the basket of symbolic gifts on his lap, and a tartan rug over his knees, he really looks the part.
‘They’ve been with us,’ Margaret is explaining as we’re bundled into the family room. ‘To make this a proper surprise.’
And under the bright light in here, Euan is opening the whisky, and Erin is organising her children: Cameron at the piano, Chloe with her clarinet. Mam and Margaret are laying out shortbread and slicing fruitcake. But I suddenly see Dad as old, tired, and fragile, surrounded by his family, yes, his fussing, celebrating family, who’re putting on a show for him. But worn down by his illness, and possibly not got long to go: any infection could grab him away from all this.
All this stuff we’re doing is nonsense: we’re hardly close to him are we? To where he is? To where he and I are?
I turn away from them all, and pretend I’m busy with my violin, taking it from its case, tuning it up. An angry frustration is churning my emotions: deliberate defiance, marriage to Jenny, working in the south, avoiding contact as much as possible. Acts of quiet aggression against his control. Against his vision of God. While he … He took the responsibility when things went wrong in his church. He accepted it when he was wrong.
He is my father. We used to know each other. How would I feel, if Alice …
‘Max! Glad you made it!’ Alex wumps me on the shoulder. So irritating, inappropriate. Ian and his enormously pregnant wife chatter something at me about Jenny’s Dundee cake being ‘Mam’s recipe and almost perfect’. The phone rings. Margaret answers, and announces ‘Kirsty can’t get away but love to everybody and happy 1997’.
We play music, sing carols, and of course we sing Auld Lang Syne.
College entrance: David had found Daze there, nursing her sore knees after sliding & falling on a patch of ice
*The Labyrinth Year: Art, Science, and Losing your Way... Hodge Publishing 2014 https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/