The first time the snow-creature multiplied, it managed to spawn a different species.
I’d made a rabbit the day before and it was a particularly good one. I’d got the nose just right, and I’d fluffed up the outer layers of the snow just enough to give a passable impression of fur. The whiskers had taken ages – mostly because the plants in my garden are sulky and limp, and don’t get a lot of watering or weeding or whatever else you’re meant to do to the blasted things. In the end I had to whittle them down with a kitchen knife and a piece of rose stem. Sliced my hands to pieces but it was worth it for the result. That rabbit was one of my best to date. When it came to the morning and I had to trudge off to work I’d been more than a little sad to leave it.
It had been an especially irritating day. Fat Margaret hadn’t bothered to switch off the answer phone and Grinning Dave was behind on his surgery as usual. I swear he doesn’t let a patient out of his room until he’s found out their life history. They float out of there like they’ve just snogged a saint. Some girl had come in with her phone and her baby and then ignored its screaming and played with the phone. Mind you it was a nasty, snotty little thing. I can see the attraction of the phone in comparison. I came home, weary and fed up, and even the snow wasn’t helping. It was turning to sludge anyway and some blithering idiot nearly flattened me at the crossing. Amber, (in case anyone still cares about the highway code), means ‘get ready’. It doesn’t mean ‘go forth and kill every poor sod in your path’.
Anyway, so I got in and I went straight to the back door so I could look at my artwork – and there it was. There in my back garden. Next to the rabbit.
It wasn’t very good, mind you. The nose was barely there and it had stones for its eyes which were completely the wrong shape and about to fall out. It didn’t even have front paws unless you counted a sort of frozen lump on the front which looked more like some sort of breast implant disaster than limbs. But even so. There it was. Crudely made but nevertheless, unmistakably a squirrel.
I eyeballed the surrounding gardens but apart from the usual yelling and banging coming from next door but one, all was quiet. I sent a few filthy looks in various directions just for cover. And then I set to and made another one. A squirrel this time, bigger, and with a decent shaped face and paws. It was pretty good, although I had to admit when I stood back and looked at both squirrels together, what it made up in detail it lacked somehow, in character. There was something about the smaller one. There was a sort of cheek to it.
I went in. I watched some sort of total bunkum about politicians being overworked and hard done by, and then some other total bunkum about plastic idiots on an island trying to win popularity contests and bitching about each other – and then gave up on the whole thing and went to bed. I had half an eye on that garden though. I was watching it, on and off, all night. Nothing changed. My snow creatures only stared back at me vacantly. Apart from that squirrel. It had a gleam in its eye. And the fact that the other eye had by now had fallen off, only made it look more as though it was winking.
But sure enough, when I got home from work the next day, having had words with some brainless lump who thought it was a good idea to go in to the doctors surgery with sickness and diarrhoea, heaven help us all – there it was.
A rabbit this time. Smaller, and lumpier, and holding a carrot.
Still not brilliant. I mean for one thing, rabbits don’t hold carrots like that, and for another the carrot was that plastic squeaky thing the yappy dog from number 32 keeps leaving in the street. Realistic, it was not. But again, I had to admit, it had some charm. I approved of the carrot confiscation for a start. One thing that dog does not need is a tool with which to make more noise.
When the snow stopped falling and started to thaw overnight I felt the usual disappointment. So that was it for another year. Another twelve months of drudgery. But those four little figures, hardening into increasingly featureless lumps, still amused me somehow, in a way the melting process doesn’t usually. And not just because I never gave back the carrot.
Time passed – it was quite boring, I’m not going to go into it – years pretty much stretch from snowfall to snowfall, with nothing much to remark on in-between. Even so, by the time the snow returned I had almost forgotten about my multiplying snow beasts.
It was a cat that year. I made her sleek and prowling, one paw slightly lifted, paused in her hunt. I spent most of the day perfecting the subtle arch of her back and when it got dark I worked well into the night on her tail. I had to start again several times when the tip broke off but the colder night temperatures helped – and the brightness of my back garden floodlight. Sod the neighbours. By the time she was complete it was the early hours of the morning, but she was a beauty. I went back inside as the light began to return, called in sick on the answer machine, and went to bed.
I slept like a baby – I always do in the snow, and when I woke up it was mid afternoon. I went downstairs straight away to admire my handwork, and perhaps fix any early ravages of the thaw. And I suppose I was expecting it. But there it was. A kitten.
The whiskers were wonky and the wrong shape, and one of them contained a tiny leaf, which was rather a give-away. The tail was too short- it takes patience for the tails – and the torso was boxy, but again, it had something. A sense of life. It looked as though it was going to scamper across the garden under my feet.
This time I went straight out there and said,
“You realise now you’ll have to make more. Cats have litters of kittens, not one. You’ll need six more at least.”
I went inside. I made a cup of tea. I called work and told them I’d need at least another day.
I left it for a while, deliberately avoiding the back window, pottering around like some old codger with nothing better to do. It was deathly boring and I was itching to get out into the snow. It was coming down again fast and I wanted to feel the cold sting of it on my skin. When I was sure I’d judged it right, and was about to go insane with boredom anyway, I went to the back door and stepped out, suddenly.
There, attached to the first kitten, rubbing its cheek on her tail, there was a second one. And behind that, the half-finished torso of a third.
And behind that – a small, grubby looking, scrawny little boy.
I have to admit to a sense of disappointment, which wasn’t helped by him looking up, grinning at me and saying, “Did you think I was a fairy?”
I was simmering a bit, battling with the impulse to chuck the little varmint out of my garden, call the police, and – implausibly, run away. But then there were the kittens, the new ones even less shapely than the first but all of them with a specific sense of something. A shyness, a sleepiness, a sense of mischief. And underneath that I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of embarrassment, as though I was the one caught out red handed. I don’t know – maybe I did think it was a fairy.
I said, “Your proportions are all out. The heads are too large for the bodies.”
He looked at me, the cocky little scrap, without a hint of apology.
“Kittens do have heads too big for their bodies – I know – my cat’s had them. You have to drown them.”
And while I was still recovering from that statement, he added, “My Dad says, anyway. But I hid one, once. To save it.”
Only now did he finally look crestfallen, “It died.”
Something in me was floundering in this exchange, so I got back to basics.
“OK but you need to smooth it better – like this see – otherwise the torso is lumpy. No – not like that – not so hard – you’ll compact it too much and then it’ll be hell to try and mould it. Go gently. See?”
He did see. Straight away he was doing it perfectly – just as I’d told him. I looked at his face and it was a study in concentration. Not an attractive child’s face. Not magazine pink and white. More a mottled dirty. He was smoothing the torso of the second kitten so that I could see her taking shape beneath it, lithe and inquisitive. He wasn’t wearing gloves.
“Where do you live?”
He was barely listening to me now, absorbed with his kitten.
“Just over there – next door but one.”
The shouty-bangers. Mr and Mrs Shouty-Bang. I’d never seen a kid there before.
He leaned forward and the bottom of his ratty little jumper fell down, exposing two inches of scrawny backbone and goose pimpled bum crack. I shivered again.
“So you live in this road, eh?”
I’d pegged him for the council estate a couple of blocks down. Oh well. Not my problem. None of my business. I wasn’t some kindly old bint who took in waifs and strays. He was a trespassing little bugger, in my garden, using up my snow.
“Alright Michelangelo,” I said. “Time to go.”
That was it. I wasn’t having it. I dragged him inside and I made him a cup of tea and I set to work sorting out his education. It’s a crime when a kid his age hasn’t heard of Michelangelo.
A year or two passed. I won’t bore you with it. You know how it goes. Snowfall to snowfall. With the usual seasons and vague maladies and general irritations in-between. I never saw him except for when it snowed. I supposed he was at school. Or maybe that was just the way things worked between us.
Either way, I started to look forward to it. Not just the snow, the scrappy little sod it brought with it.
We made foxes the next year. I did the vixen, he the cubs. And Donatello over tea. It snowed twice that winter so we had a second session – but the snowfall was a bit lighter then, so we went miniature and made a family of mice. He was skinnier that year, if that was possible, and paler. There were dark circles under his eyes and a nasty little scabby thing at the corner of his lip. Could have been a cold sore I suppose. I never saw the little minx wear anything warmer than some sort of moth eaten jumper. We had cake with our tea that time, and Henry Moore – I didn’t want him thinking all the good sculptors were Italian.
The year after that the snowfall was deeper than even I’d seen it, and we clubbed together to make something big. He chose a dinosaur – wouldn’t have been my selection – I like to make things that are actually real – but he seemed a bit quieter that winter so I thought I may as well go along with it to cheer him up. He didn’t seem to be growing much year on year. We made a Stegosaurus. We used up all the snow in my garden, and then he climbed up on my garage roof and threw down a whole load more from there. I have to admit it was pretty spectacular, that dinosaur. It had a long winding tail and spikes which we moulded so they were ice sharp and wicked looking, belying its vegetarian nature. He wanted to put some grass in its mouth, just to labour the point, but I said no and then he did it anyway. He made it work somehow. He’d always had some sort of knack with the faces.
It took up the entire garden. He probably just looked smaller next to it.
Even so I stepped up my game a bit and we had soup as well as cake with our tea afterwards, and I gave him the leftovers for him to take home to his mum. Thought it might be a hint for her to fatten him up but he went quiet again and a bit surly and difficult, so I gave up after a while and we talked about Rodin.
After the thaw I kept a bit more of an eye out. Found excuses to walk up and down the road, had a bit of a peek at next door but one. Couldn’t see much, they always seemed to keep the blinds closed. Plenty of shouting and banging of course but no sound of a child. Mind you, he was always an odd sort of kid. All the others I’d had the misfortune to encounter seemed to run everywhere and communicate mostly in shrieks or whines. Perhaps he just had that kind of personality. And good for him, I told myself.
I’d started to have a bit of a gnawing, worried sort of feeling inside me. I medicated with sherry.
The year finished. The snow fell. We made a family of hedgehogs. I think he was still a bit elated about the spikes on the stegosaurus from the previous year and there wasn’t actually a lot of snowfall. It varies, that’s the trouble. I made up for it this time by making a roast. The whole lot. All the trimmings. He ate it like he’d never seen food before. I had to remind him, sharply, to watch his manners. There was a purplish bruise on his elbow where he said he’d knocked it coming down the stairs. Maybe he was just a normal kid. You know kids. They’re always hurling themselves up and down stairs.
It didn’t explain the one on his neck though. He didn’t tell me. And I didn’t ask.
I gave him the coat and gloves I’d bought him. He asked if he could keep them at my house, ‘so they were safe’.
I had that feeling again.
We learned about Picasso.
The snow thawed. I kept his coat in my wardrobe. The yappy dog from number 32 got a new squeaky toy in the shape of a fried egg.
A few times I stood outside the various schools at start time. I saw a lot of nasty little boys. I never saw him go in. I stood outside at home time. I never saw him come out.
I confiscated the fried egg.
One time I went right up the path and I rang on the doorbell of the next house but one. Nobody answered but as I left I saw Mr Shouty-Bang looking right out at me. Bold as brass and grinning. I scuttled off like a frightened old woman. I suppose that’s what I was.
The yappy dog from number 32 got a new squeaky toy in the shape of a sausage.
When they forecast snow the next year I got out his coat and his gloves and I warmed them ready on the radiator. I was looking out for him but he still beat me to it. I got up one morning and he was there in my garden.
He didn’t have any shoes on.
He said he’d lost them.
His feet were bright blue.
I lent him my wellies.
I didn’t say anything and neither did he, and he wore three pairs of my socks and tramped about in my boots and his legs looked ridiculous poking out of the top of them.
I think we both knew somehow that something would change. I think we both knew this time would be the last.
We made an owl. Just a small one – the snowfall was slight again – but it was exquisite. We knew it was, but neither of us would jinx it by saying so. We made each individual feather on its back and we carved the lines and swirls and detail of them with an old comb and a toothbrush. We had the ears just right, and the tufty eyebrows. He did the face – he still lacked a certain exactitude, but he made up for it with that extraordinary ability to somehow breathe life in. That owl was majestic and wise and beady. It looked out at us with a sort of affectionate scorn. We carved the claws and we carved the branch they perched on. I have never, not to this day and not before then, made anything quite so perfectly beautiful.
When we had finished we stood back, for a long time, and simply looked at it.
It wasn’t until later, when we were eating and drinking, and looking at pictures (this time it was Anthony Gormley), that he suddenly said,
“Do you think we could keep it? Like, for a long time? After the snow?”
I asked him what he meant, and he said, “The owl.”
And I said I knew that, but that what was confusing me was how a child of his age could have got through so many winters without apparently knowing about the thaw.
He said, “I know, but – maybe – in the freezer?”
I don’t know what possessed me, so don’t bother to ask. Maybe it was the way things felt, that sort of heavy finality. Or the thing he said afterwards. Or the fact that, if I’m honest, I don’t find the thaw very easy myself.
Whatever it was, the upshot of it, is that there is an owl in my freezer.
We found some flat board, that cheap sort of mdf stuff, which I had in the shed with some broken old furniture. We slid it underneath the owl, little by little, and somehow, by some miracle, we got it mounted intact. My freezer is one of those half and half things, with the freezer bit on the bottom so it’s like a tall oblong.
It’s like a display case.
I pulled out all the drawers and then, once we’d trimmed the mdf a little, we could slide the owl right in and close the door and there he was. Preserved in all his glory. When we opened the door to view him, which we did several times over the course of the next few hours, (just to check, you understand, that he’d made it undamaged), he had an imperious expression, as though the freezer was his natural palace, and nothing less than he deserved.
He’s a little roughed up at the edges now. But he’s no less imperious.
We learned a bit more about Anthony Gormley. And we picked up all the food I’d thrown out of the freezer and we cooked it all up and ate fish fingers with peas and chips and Yorkshire puddings and mincemeat – and ice cream for dessert.
And we didn’t mention the cut by the side of his eye, or the loss of his shoes, or the swelling on his ankle. I suppose we didn’t want to jinx it. This last time. I suppose we wanted to hold onto the warmth and the food and the snow and the artwork. To pick up the whole thing and put it all in the freezer.
It was only at the end, when we looked out of the window and it was getting darker. And we felt the temperature rising and the thaw rolling in. And he took off his coat and his gloves for safe keeping. Only then did he say,
“Thank you. By the way. For making the snow nice for me. It doesn’t feel like a real punishment now.”
And as I opened my mouth like a half gutted fish to respond somehow, to the weight of that statement, he grinned suddenly and said,
“It was really good wasn’t it?”
And then he was gone. I assume he meant the owl.
But I never saw him again.
Well of course I didn’t. Do you think I’m blind? I called social services. A few months later – how it took a few months I really don’t know – but I watched from my window as a short fat lady took a small, grubby boy by his scrawny little hand, and led him, gently, to a car. And several large fat policemen escorted Mr and Mrs Shouty-Bang off the premises and into a van.
I watched the whole thing. But he didn’t look back.
Years passed. I’m not going to harp on about it. Quite a lot of years actually. I don’t know how many and I don’t care to count. I made a rabbit again the first year. Just the one and I admit it, I suppose I half thought –
– but no.
There were no additional rabbits when I woke the next morning. And no squirrels. Well he was safe now, anyway. That was the main thing. I didn’t miss him exactly. I had better things to do than run around after small boys. I was too old for a start. And now I’m even older.
I made an entire warren’s worth of rabbits. Just in case it was lonely. But as hard as I tried, I could never get the faces right, could never quite manage to capture that glint in the eyes.
Years passed. Snowfall to snowfall. I stopped expecting unexpected visitors. I retired from work and then missed it for some reason, Lord knows why, the bloody place. The yappy dog from number 32 finally died. No one wanted to buy the house next door from one. Despite a succession of greasy young estate agents. Too much bad publicity. And the odd greasy young journalist. Looking to slice their big break off the side of someone else’s misery. No one asked me for a story and I wouldn’t have told them.
No one made the connection with the bright young sculptor, beginning to make his name now in London’s East End.
I made a litter of pigs, a lizard, a koala and a swan. I think I made more cats and squirrels and rabbits. One year I even managed a deer. The owl lost a bit off the tip of his ear. I tried to fix it but it wasn’t as good. My fingers aren’t as steady as they used to be. And the swelling doesn’t help when you want to do detail.
Snowfall to snowfall. The young woman who moved into next door but one got a black and white cat. It leaves turds in my garden. But it’s a darn sight quieter than that blasted dog. I made some mice and a few rabbits. They weren’t very good.
I wear special gloves indoors now, to ease the pain in my hands. It doesn’t work but it’s something, and the doctor insists on it. Besides, once the nurse has got the bloody things on, I can’t quite be bothered to take them back off. I have my own social services visitor too. She’s small and dark skinned and very pretty. She speaks with a lilting accent and she thinks that I’m crazy because I won’t let her make sure I have food in my freezer.
Snowfall to snowfall.
I am old. And fed up.
This winter there has been a lot of snow, it’s deeper than it’s been since that other time before. The giant Stegosaurus. More than a decade ago.
And there’s something in me that moves this year. Something angry and weary and bored of it all.
I go out in my coat and my hat and my special gloves and I grit my teeth against the swelling in my fingers and the pain in my wrists and I decide I’m going to make a dragon. I work all day and most of the night. I ignore the doorbell and I ignore the phone. I ignore the neighbours and I ignore the cat. The dragon has to be big and bulky, because my hands shake too much to work small scale. I make him curve around the garden. I give him scales and a tail. He is snarling and furious to offset the tears in my eyes and the pain in my fingers. I can’t get the face right. I go back inside.
In the morning I lie for a long time in bed. I can’t think what to get up for.
I listen to the sounds of the street. I read about Andy Warhol. I ignore the doorbell. I ignore the phone.
When I finally drag myself into the shower, throw some sort of clothing on, and go back downstairs, I am vaguely intending to go back out there. To try again with the face. Inspired, perhaps, by Andy Warhol, I am wondering about smearing some blood round its jaws. That’ll get a reaction out of Little Miss Pretty.
I step out of the door. The dragon is still there. Curling around the garden and snarling at the world. Its face is much better than I remember.
Next to it there is a smaller one.
And behind that there is a man. With dark hair and apologetic eyes. Lord knows how he got in. Lord knows how he ever got in.
There is a pause. I am struggling with a variety of things and the least of it is the pain in my hands.
Then I say, roughly, “Your technique hasn’t got any better. It’s supposed to be a dragon, not a misshapen cat.”
And he says, “I’m sorry. That I didn’t come to see you sooner. It’s just…that it was…hard to come back.”
There is a pause. Then he says, “You’re right. About the cat. I’ve been working with…well, different materials. I’m a bit rusty on snow.”
There is another pause. Then he says, “Do you remember that owl?”
I do not tell him it’s still there. He looks at my hands. I shove them deep in my pockets.
Then I say,
“You’ll catch your death out here. Are you coming in for tea or not?”