Christmas Eve. Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow, until the city lay underneath its white pelt like a steaming animal.
We had ignored the weather warnings and escaped in the Jeep, feeling smug about our Advanced Snow System, and guilty about owning a four-wheel drive. My partner is deep Green. I am a shade of yellow.
Boffin, our dog, who knows everything, is black and white.
Still, we had given money to charity, bought a free-range goose, that had been given therapy before slaughter, and wrapped our Christmas presents in back copies of Le Monde.
We were warm and cosy, happy, and then we started to fight. Every year it’s the same; the Christmas crack-up, the Yule yowls, the Xmas Exit, the Goodwill gladiators razoring each other to pieces. Over what?
‘Why did you buy a Singing Poinsettia?’
‘You don’t like the real ones.’
‘So you thought a rubber one that sings Jingle Bells would be better?’
And then… ‘If you kiss someone at the office party for more than 10 seconds, should you tell your partner?’
That’s why I don’t trust you…’
I read somewhere that most affairs start at Christmas, and so do most divorces. You spend all year saying nothing to each other, then it all pours out on the motorway like a diesel spill.
I cautiously put my hand across to your seat. It’s good that legs don’t have teeth. ‘Listen, we’re both tired, let’s just get to the cottage, unpack, have a bath, and be in time for Simon’s party.’
‘I don’t want to go to his bloody party.’
Simon is local gentry. I like him, Fiona doesn’t like him, and she likes his wife even less since she served up fox fritters one lunchtime. It wasn’t really fried fox; it’s just that they have a different sense of humour in the country.
Live and let live, I say. Fiona says, ‘Try telling that to the Hunt.’
So we agree to differ, because I come from the country and she comes from the city, and because things are complicated enough without fighting with someone you love.
That’s what I tell Boffin, anyway.
By the time we had reached the cottage and unpacked a year’s supply of E-free mince pies, eco-bones for Boffin, and our Forest Friendly tree, we had disagreed about everything from Global Warming, (‘darling, there is six inches of snow on top of the outside loo seat’), to how to cook a goose, (she wanted Jamie Oliver, I voted for Bob Cratchit’s recipe in A Christmas Carol).
I like a roaring fire downstairs, and a freezing cold bathroom upstairs, because that feels like a traditional British Christmas. Fiona likes lots of central heating and no soot. I even like the word ‘soot’.
Of course, she decides she won’t come to the party. I sulk, eat six mince pies, and nothing happens. If I am going, I’ve got to go now. If she is staying, she’s got to stay.
‘Please come with me.’
‘Simon is a prat in a cravat, and Geraldine is as hospitable as a skewer.’
‘There will be lots of people there that we know.’
‘Yes, and most of them support the death penalty.’
I went upstairs to get my shoes and tip-toed out of the raging cottage into the quiet of the snow. I took a deep breath.
Just as I was starting the car, Fiona poked her head out of the kitchen window. ‘You’re crazy to drive in this anyway. Don’t take the short cut, will you?’
I didn’t answer. The window slammed shut.
I like driving. The white road was shiny and clean. There were deer herding together where the fields closed into woods. I was just beginning to relax, when the sky opened as though it had been torn with a knife, and snow hit the car like someone had thrown a quilt over me. All over me. I had to stop.
I got out of the car into a whirlstorm of white. The wind was slicing across the road, lifting the already fallen snow in freezing fillets. This wasn’t the stuff of Christmas cards; this was lethal. I got back in, put the wipers and the windscreen heater on full blast, and began to move forward at about 10mph.
A figure stepped out into the road.
I braked, and wound down the window.
The face looking in at me was red and wild, with a black beard and black eyes. He had a hat pulled down low, and his mouth was a slot of teeth. He was the rough shape of human.
‘Can you give me a ride? Not far, not far at all.’
‘Are you broken down?’
‘I am, yes.’
‘Where’s your car?’
‘I never said anything about a car.’
I was uneasy, but he had already opened the door, and was standing letting the wind blow in, snow hanging from his beard.
‘Can you take me as far as the Merrymouth Inn?’
It was on my way. I couldn’t say no. He got in. The temperature in the car dropped. I presumed it was the ice on his clothes.
‘Do you want to sling your coat in the back and dry off?’
‘No, not at all. I’m fine as I am now, I am.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Connamara, if we turn back in time, and it’s the time of year for that, sure it is.’
‘This snow came out of nowhere. I suppose you were walking to the pub and got caught?’
‘No, not at all.’
We were silent for a while, inching along the frozen highway. I fiddled with the radio – there was a ghost story just beginning. My passenger suddenly leaned forward and turned off the radio. Before I could protest, he offered to tell me a ghost story of his own, by way of payment for the ride, he said. I nodded. At least we wouldn’t have to make conversation.
He glanced at me, and began:
‘There was a man making his way home on the Wool Road from London to Hereford. He had sold his sheep at a good price, and bought himself a good white mare, and bolts of cloth and fine stuffs for his family, for he had married better than himself, and he hoped to show something to be remarked upon, for his labour and his wits. His goods were travelling slower behind in a cart, but he carried his money on his person. It was the 21st of December, and as cold and dark a night as ever fell at the end of a day.
He had ridden on past the coaching inn where his companions and servants took their rest that night. He wanted to get further, and his mare was willing, and he reckoned another fifteen miles could be got this day and the next, and so bring him home the sooner for the Feast of Christmas.
But there was strange work abroad, and a band of men ambushed him and robbed him, and left him for dead by the roadside, and they would have taken his white mare too, if she hadn’t bolted.
In the long hours of the night, the snow fell, and by morning the man’s body could not be seen. His companions and servants came past him on the road, and went on all unknowing, until they reached the further inn, and found he had never been there. While they were debating the matter, the white mare came galloping up, still saddled, but wild with fright, and she led them back to her master, where he lay wounded for his life, and fair dead of the bludgeoning and the cold. Then what happened never should have happened. His men convinced themselves that as they had had no hand in his ruin, they might honestly profit from his downfall, and they made away with the remainder of his goods.
The one who rode the white mare had reason to regret it soon, for she threw him and cracked his skull, and returned her way, weary and hungry, back to the body of her master, where she lay beside him, white in the white snow, trying with her love to bring him to life again.
She perished there beside him on the road.
There’s a story in these parts that anyone who meets this man – not as he was, mind, but meets him nonetheless, and helps him, will see that horse too, when he has need of her. See her white and high as the moon, white against the white of the hill.
‘Have you ever seen her?’ I asked
He laughed. ‘Seen her? Oh yes, and you too, perhaps.’
‘I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘No, not at all, you don’t?’
‘No, not at all.’ I laughed uncomfortably. ‘I don’t.
‘What is it that you do believe in?’
I didn’t answer. I know all about the things I don’t believe in, but belief sounds too much like fanaticism to me. I mumbled something about equality and justice.
‘Fine words’ said the man, ‘ very philosophical I’m sure, but when you come to lay your hand on it, what does it mean?’
I had felt uncomfortable, Now I felt resentful. Why was I being lectured by an old tramp?
The snow had eased a little and we were in sight of the Merrymouth Inn. The man began to open the door before I had time to stop properly. He got out and looked back at me, tipping his hat. ‘I’ll tell you what’s true as I stand before you. There’s three things to believe in: Believe in yourself. Believe in what’s better than yourself. Believe in the one you love.’
He stood back. ‘Now there’s no fancy philosophy there, but there’s solid things to put to the test. Merry Christmas to you.’
I smiled. Mad bastard. Let him freeze to death.
As I pulled away, I caught myself up in my thought. He had rattled me all right. I was angry, and why? What had he done wrong? Nothing. What had he said that was so bad? Nothing.
What do you believe in then? His voice coming back to me.
In myself? That’s a difficult one. Does he mean like George Bush or like Ghandi? In something better than myself? Does he mean like old-fashioned God or new-fangled world peace? Too abstract… why am I even thinking about this? But I am, so, maybe something better than myself is… well let’s face it, even the dog is better than myself; he’s loyal, trustworthy, never lies.
Ok, the dog, I believe in the dog. What else? While I was struggling with the second part, as well as the first, I strayed forward to the last – the one you love.
I love Fiona – but believe in her? What would that mean? Complete trust. A kind of peacefulness. Belief is not knowledge – it’s not about the facts. It’s certainty where there is no certainty – at least not logically. It isn’t rational, which is why it has this fanaticism feel to it, and why I am wary of it, and why I look at its dark face, when its shining face is… suddenly, right above me, the beginning of the moon, white light in a white sky.
What do you believe in then?
I stopped the car and switched off the engine. This high ridge has a view for miles across the fields – the white flat squares marked off by dark hedge lines. Far in the distance were the massed lights of the town. Behind me, the road was empty and quiet. The snow storm had driven everyone home. In the field next to me, a small flock of sheep were gathered round a long galvanised trough. In the silence I could hear their flat teeth placidly grinding swede.
From the top of the drift I could see my destination; the black bulk of the house, its windows brightly lit. I had only another mile or so if I took the short cut.
Don’t take the short cut will you?
But now I was late, and the house was so near. To go all the way round the road would be at least four miles, and the snow was just beginning again, innocent, gentle, but with a purpose to it. In half an hour there might be another blizzard.
Yet there was no wind, and the sky had cleared. I got out of the car to inspect the top of the drift and its first sloping bend, or bending slope. This was a short cut to the village that generations of farm workers and servants had used in all weathers, but they had been on foot, or at best on a four-legged animal. I looked at my Jeep. Four-wheel drive is the up-to date version of four-legged traction. If a horse could get down here, so could I. A horse comes without an Advanced Snow System. This is England, not Iceland. I smiled at my own nervousness, and turned back to the car.
So still. The sky in its night-coat worn through with stars. One, brighter than the rest, hung low in the valley. All I had to do was drive towards it, and it felt seasonal and simple, and I threw off the strangeness of my earlier encounter, and got inside the warm cab, and eased the car into second gear. The deep lane closed around me.
It was steeper than I remembered. Tentatively I applied the brake and the back end shifted. All right then, no braking, just trust the car to do the job and sit tight. I inched forward, conscious of the car creaking, and the muffled noise under the tyres. An owl flew straight over the windscreen, its face a white warning.
There was so much white that I began to mistake the bending dipping track for the steep verges on either side. I over-steered, and lurched up the bank, skidding down again, half sideways across the road. It was so narrow, I could hardly right myself, the car wheels slipping stupidly as I tried to reverse. I pulled myself round, trod on the brake out of habit, and stalled the car. Before I could get the handbrake on, I was sliding forward, with no four-wheel drive and no engine. I grabbed the handbrake and stamped on the brake, only to slide forward faster on the sheer ice, as the back wheels locked.
At that second a sheet of snow hit the windscreen from a shedding tree, and my world went completely white. I could hear what sounded like an avalanche, and I knew the avalanche was me, picking up speed down the track, as the dead Jeep became nothing but its own weight. The last thing I remember was opening the side window and turning my head. There was a horse. A white horse.
Then the white world turned black.
It was my mobile phone ringing that brought me round. For seconds or minutes, I don’t know, I sat quite still, noticing, without emotion, that snow had blown in through the open window of the Jeep, and made a white cushion on the passenger seat. The cushion was studded with red berries. Red berries. I put out my hand in slow motion. No, not red berries, red blood.
I tried to move – yes, I could move alright. I tried to open the door – no, it was stuck on my side. I slid across the blood-written snow cushion, and dragged myself through the passenger window. I fell into deep snow, snow falling heavily all around me, The fender of the Jeep was twisted under a farm gate.
Without thinking, I opened the back of the car and took out the two travel rugs we keep there. I wrapped them round my head and shoulders. Then I got the bottle of whisky I had been taking to my host and shoved it in my coat pocket. Blood fell from the cut over my eye onto the white ground. I stooped down and picked up a handful of crystal snow and packed it against the cut. It felt cold and light and clean.
I took a swig of the whisky and started walking.
I saw them straight away – the footsteps. Footsteps walking down the drift, from the ridge towards the village. New footsteps, very new, because the snow was falling so fast now.
I followed them like a child, and then I noticed something else, appearing right beside them, but suddenly appearing, although this was impossible, and in my slowed down state I stood letting the snow cover me, trying to understand it. Very clearly, marked into the lane, were the prints of a horse’s hooves.
‘He must have jumped the hedge’ I thought, knowing that horses don’t jump unless someone is riding them, or unless they are very afraid.
‘My head is hurt’ I thought. ‘I must keep going. I must get to the house.’
Then, like an idiot, I remembered the phone in the car. I turned to go back, but if I did that I would be walking away from the footprints. And away from the horse. I don’t know why I did what I did at that moment. But instead of turning back, I walked on.
‘I am sorry I shouted at you.’ I said out loud, though there was no one to hear. ‘I am sorry you aren’t here now.’ I put out my hand to hold your hand.
When I was little, my parents rowed most of the time. I remember sitting on the stairs in my pyjamas and dressing gown listening to them fighting. She wanted more money, he wanted a different life. When they divorced I promised myself I wouldn’t fight anyone I love. It’s a promise that breaks like cheap glass.
I was close to the bottom of the track now, and the few village houses were dark. Why was everyone out? Were they all at the party? The wind was getting up, flinging gusts of snow into my face like a wet mask. ‘Not far now’ I said to myself, ‘Keep walking’
But I wasn’t walking, I was falling.
The sky in its night-coat worn through with stars. The comets with their burning tails driven by solar winds. A red planet in the East; the sun or Mars? A birth is something to believe in. A new beginning is something to believe in. Always a new beginning a different end.
It was Fiona standing over me. There were voices far off, but her face near, and she was holding my hand.
‘I knew you’d take the short cut’ she said. ‘I came after you. I rang Simon and he went looking for you when you didn’t arrive at the party. Geraldine came and picked me up, they were both so kind, I wish I hadn’t said the things I said. I thought you were dead, we found the Jeep…’
She was crying. I squeezed her hand. I felt very close to her and very far away from myself.
‘I saw your footsteps’ I said – ‘and the horse. ‘Did you see the snow horse?’
‘When you walked down the drift there was a horse next to you, did you not see him?’
I lay awake all through that Christmas Eve night, you sleeping beside me. We were in a big bed, the moon standing guard outside the window. There was the owl again – K-wick, K-wick, and nearby, the long hoot of her mate. Then I heard it, unmistakable, the steady clip of hooves under the window and towards the drift, and out, further and further, faster and faster, on the high old coaching road, beneath the rack of stars.