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Snow

1

Vanessa and Robert are on holiday. It is New Year's Eve and Vanessa is driving over the fell road. Robert is explaining to her what will happen in the event of a major radiation leak at the nearby power station. Vanessa doesn't want to think about accidents or the threat of terrorist attacks. She prefers to imagine instead the glacial ice-sheets which covered these mountains for millions of years. She thinks of the slow-moving ice carving down through the valleys. She imagines clear skies and a world covered with virgin snow, a pristine version of the landscape through which they are driving.

'It's still there,' announces Robert, who has been looking back at the power station through the rear window of the car. 'Yes,' says Vanessa. She is trying to make her voice sound conversational but it sounds accusing. She forces herself to smile so that he will give her the benefit of the doubt. On another occasion she might not have bothered and he would have sulked, forcing her to ask what the matter was. She would resist, knowing full well what she was doing, wanting him to fight her, though she knows he won't. But this is neither the time nor the place and she lets it drop. She repeats to herself the names of rocks: calcareous, gneiss, feldspar. The words sound hard, unyielding, comforting.

A few scarlet-marked sheep scatter from the road onto the gorse-covered bank. There are yellow flowers on the gorse which she knows blooms every day of the year; 'Like hope' her mother used to say. Vanessa has been living with Robert for six years. She is 29. Recently she has taken to thinking a lot about herself. What once seemed distant concerns have taken on a real urgency. She cannot see herself with Robert for the rest of her life. She wants to break out but she doesn't yet know where to. In the earlier days of living together they laughed over friends and relatives getting married. They congratulated themselves on their freedom. Each of them had a career. How was it possible to make a commitment so young? After a time they ceased to talk about it. Now the fact they have not married seems to demand correction.

'How long before we get to the car park?' Vanessa asks. Robert says it's not too far. Around the next bend they see the sign and Vanessa pulls off the road and stops with the nose of the car pointing towards mountains. There is a lake behind them, a long curve of metallic blue. The power station has passed from sight.

She had felt the wind buffeting the car while she was driving but the violence of it almost knocks her over as she gets out to put on her walking boots. She turns round to see Robert chasing his hat down the road. He play-acts for her benefit and she laughs. Robert looks pleased as he comes back up the road towards her, his hat now firmly secured on his head.

From the car park they cross a narrow brook and take the path up the valley in front of them. Robert has traced out a route along the dotted footpaths marked on the Ordnance Survey map. His square back and shoulders move ahead. Vanessa's boots squelch in the half-frozen mud. They climb in silence, following the trail along the side of the lower hillslope. There are footprints in the mud but once the car park has passed from view she cannot see any other forms of human life, only the white, drifted snow. Across the valley Vanessa occasionally mistakes a rock for a human figure. She thinks how difficult it would be to find someone if they were lost up here. She is glad she is wearing her bright yellow waterproof. Robert has on only an old, brown flying jacket. From the air he would be indistinguishable from the boulders littering the hillside, she thinks.

She picks her way unsteadily over the wet ground, trying to follow Robert in the placing of a foot here or there. Several times they have to stop while Robert finds a way through a particularly boggy section of the path. Vanessa watches him. When they first knew each other he used to go climbing. But friends moved away and he got out of the habit. Now he rarely even goes out.

Vanessa wonders if she was ever really in love with Robert. She has certainly felt affection for him, and still does. She doesn't want to hurt him. She thinks it was a desire for security rather than love that provided the motivation for their living together. It was a way of escaping from being by herself.

At the top of the ridge they pause to catch their breath and Robert divides out some chocolate he has brought with him. Beneath them the full extent of the lake is visible in the slanting rays of the sun. Vanessa remembers reading about a woman's body being found in the lake. It had been lashed to a concrete fence post. The woman had been murdered by her husband at their home in the midlands. He had loaded the body into the boot of the family car and driven to visit their son at a private school in Devon, where he had checked into a hotel for the night. But instead of sleeping he had driven up here, dumped the body and then driven south again to arrive in time for breakfast at the hotel. The surprising part of the story was that after the police found the body three other murderers confessed.

'What are you thinking about?' Robert asks.

'I was wondering what drives a man to murder his wife,' Vanessa says.

'Why don't they just walk out on them?'

'I don't know,' Robert says. 'Is it always husbands murdering wives?'

'Not always,' says Vanessa. 'But isn't it usually?'

'I suppose you're right,' Robert says.

'There was a body found in this lake a few years back. Three men confessed to the murder before the actual murderer was identified.'

'You mean three hoaxes?'

'No three murderers confessed, but this wasn't their victim. I guess the pressure of maintaining their secrets finally got to be too much.'

'Well I promise not to murder you,' says Robert, grinning. Vanessa doesn't respond. He has started fidgeting, a sign that he wants to go on. They continue climbing in silence, Robert in front, Vanessa behind. Craggy peaks tower above them. The higher they climb the bigger the mountains appear to become. It seems to Vanessa that they have come almost no distance at all even though it is nearly an hour since they left the car. Twenty yards ahead of her Robert stops to consult the map.

'This is the wrong path,' he announces as Vanessa comes up towards him. 'It gets more and more like a river the higher up we go.'

'Where is the real path?' Vanessa asks.

'Up there,' Robert replies pointing up the slope. 'Fancy a climb?'

Vanessa perches on top of a clump of snow-covered grass. The sock inside her left boot is wet. Robert is starting to climb. He is obviously excited. This is his idea of a good walk. He never really feels he's been out unless he's spent hours scrambling over loose screes and fording rivers.

'Robert, this is crazy!' Vanessa shouts. What if he falls, she is thinking. What if I fall? She feels annoyed that they have come the wrong way, but not particularly with Robert. How have they managed to lose their way? She feels as though her dignity has been undermined, as though she has been humiliated. But she knows this is something that only concerns herself.

'I suppose you're right.' Robert sounds disappointed as he sits on his hands and toboggans down the slope towards her. 'It's getting late. We ought to head back anyway.'

Descending the slope again Robert hands her another piece of chocolate. Vanessa is still wondering how they missed the path. The track they are walking along seems unfamiliar, but perhaps that is just the effect of going the other way. The last of the sunlight fills the valley below. In less than an hour it will begin to get dark. In the entire landscape there is no sign of human habitation and nothing moves.

'Well that's the last of the chocolate,' Robert says screwing up the foil wrapper in his hand.

II

The cottage they are staying in belongs to a friend of Robert's. In the visitors' book there are entries back to 1996. Many of them are disconcertingly personal, especially the religious ones. They talk of private grief and individual heartache, of the healing power of beauty and quietness. Vanessa is surprised by these entries. Lawrence, who owns the place, has never shown the slightest inclination towards spirituality in the time she has known him. She guesses these must be entries by acquaintances of Lawrence's father, a retired clergyman who lives at the other end of the village. They have yet to meet him but know they probably will. Lawrence's father visits everyone who stays in the cottage.

Best of all in the visitors' book Vanessa likes the entries of the children, Lawrence's children growing up through the summer and winter holidays spent here. There are Sarah's first tentative entries, and Neil's coloured doodles. Someone has written beside them in blue ink: 'Neil's signature aged 2 ½ years.' There is other evidence of the children in the cottage too: a wicker basket of rocks and sea shells and the pale skeletons of sea urchins. There are dried conkers on the mantelpiece and children's storybooks on the shelf among the walking guides, detective books and recipe books.

Children are one of the reasons Vanessa knows she has to leave Robert. Earlier in life she had thought that she would never want children. The commitment of so much time had seemed to her unthinkable. Now she finds herself increasingly imagining the presence of children. She has left it late already. She does not want to leave it for much longer. Yet she cannot see Robert as the father of her children. She has tried to picture it to herself but she cannot reconcile herself to such a vision. They would go on then for years. The thought makes her feel as though she were suffocating.

The sound of someone knocking at the front door interrupts the flow of Vanessa's thoughts and she sits up in the bath in which she has been soaking. She can hear Robert talking to someone in the front room and wonders if she should get out. The bath is warm and comfortable however and she decides to wait. It is a man's voice she can hear but she can't quite make out what is being said. Vanessa hopes the visitor won't think her anti-social as she slides back down into the soft, soapy water.

The bathroom is damp and black mould is growing on the walls in places. She has the wall heater on and a fan heater, the lead running in under the door from the kitchen. She soaps her body slowly. Recently she read an article in a magazine which claimed that personal smells were a major reason for marriages breaking up. It said that Americans used so much deodorant that it wasn't until they were married that they discovered how each other smelled and often that spelled disaster. She hasn't yet made up her mind whether she thinks there's any truth in this. She hears the front door closing, then Robert coming through into the kitchen.

'That was Lawrence's father,' he calls through the bathroom door. 'He's invited us round after dinner this evening.'

'What's he like?' Vanessa asks. Robert pushes open the bathroom door as though taking her question for an invitation.

'Nice,' he says. He stands in the door way gazing at her through the steam. Vanessa hopes he isn't going to touch her.

'Do you want me to start making dinner or are you going to be some time?' he asks. This is his way of saying that he is hungry. So that's what he's concerned about, she thinks.

'OK, I'll get out in a minute,' she says. Robert smiles at her then goes out, closing the door. Vanessa rinses the soap from her arms and legs and stands up, reaching for a damp towel hanging behind the door. She rubs the towel over her flat stomach and wonders what it would be like to feel it swelling. She isn't attracted to the facts of pregnancy, only the idea of motherhood. She doesn't like being ill and being pregnant she thinks would be a bit like being sick for nine months. She hopes that having a child will make her feel that she has done something with her life. In the kitchen she can hear Robert shifting pans around. Vanessa finishes towelling her body and steps out onto the bath mat. Then she dries her feet. She feels clean now, like herself, uncontaminated.

III

While Robert is cooking dinner Vanessa studies the map, tracing the route they followed that afternoon. She is trying to work out where they went wrong, but after a while she gives up the attempt. Instead she looks at other places they have visited. She sits in front of the open fire in a big armchair, feet curled under her. She has always loved maps. There is something reassuring about knowing where you are and where you have been. She uses the map to build up a mental picture of the area, connecting one day's memories with another.

Neither Robert nor Vanessa have been to this part of the country before. Vanessa remembers travelling past on the motorway going north as a child but neither of them count that. Two years ago they went to the Yorkshire Dales and Vanessa was surprised to discover how much history there was in the area. Though a southerner, she had always thought herself immune from southern prejudice. She had expected bleak moorland, not fertile valleys and ruined abbeys. She was reminded of a map of the British Isles a friend's child had drawn at school. The capital occupied a third of the map with the north tapering away to a tiny, almost non-existent Scotland. Now she is wiser. Still she draws a blank on the history of this part of the country.

'What happened here before Gray and Wordsworth put it on the map?' she calls out to Robert.

'Nothing much,' he calls back above the sound of the fan heater. 'Sheep, lots of sheep. It was too inaccessible for anything else.'

In the bottom corner of the map is the power station. It looks just like a village except that it has no name, only the word 'works' to indicate what it is. The site blends innocuously into its surroundings. There are no 'danger' signs, no skull and crossbones, no radiation symbol. It is unobtrusive, not as it appears in real life, and yet Vanessa feels there is a sort of truth in its being so unremarkable. The map keeps faith with the way local people have accepted the power station into their lives, the way tissue grows around a foreign body, enfolding it.

That morning they had been into the tiny seaside town to the south of the power station to buy coal. They had to stop at a garage to ask for directions to the local coal merchant, which turned out to be an ordinary-looking, semi-detached house in a side road. Robert rang the bell. An elderly woman opened the door to him and together they disappeared around the back of the house. A few minutes later Robert reappeared struggling with two bags of coal and Vanessa got out to open the boot. The old woman followed Robert down the path.

'Yes it's very pretty, so long as it stays up on the hills,' she was saying.

'Snow,' said Robert by way of explanation.

Vanessa folds the map and puts it on the table. In the kitchen Robert swears loudly.

'Everything OK?' she calls.

'The soup just boiled over.'

'I'll open the wine,' she says. The smell of the cooking is making her hungry. She takes the corkscrew from a drawer in the sideboard and uncorks the bottle which has been standing on the table. Robert believes in eating and drinking well, especially on holiday. So does Vanessa, but she finds the time spent hunting for ingredients tiresome. Robert always seems to forget that few places offer the variety of shops they have in London. He seems surprised when ingredients he regards as perfectly ordinary aren't available. That morning they had been to four different shops in two towns before they found the sour cream which Robert insisted was an essential accompaniment to the soup he is cooking. He also forgets that few holiday cottages are equipped with the range of utensils he has assembled at home. She wishes she didn't begrudge him the pleasures of preparing these meals.

'OK we're ready,' says Robert appearing at the kitchen door. 'I'm going to dish up the first course.' The soup they are having tonight is a traditional recipe using dried peas and bacon. During the time she has known him Robert's cooking has gone through a number of phases, all of them associated with places he has visited on holiday. For a while it was Portugal, then France. Currently he is infatuated with traditional English cookery. While Robert places the two bowls of soup on the table Vanessa pours the wine. She takes a mouthful, hoping the alcohol will help her relax. She feels anxious though she can't say exactly why. The soup seems none the worse for having boiled over and she compliments Robert on its delicate flavour. He looks pleased.

'I thought you were annoyed with me,' he says.

'Why?'

'Oh I don't know, you haven't said much since we got back from the walk.'

'Sorry,' Vanessa says. 'I'm just in a quiet sort of mood.'

'What are you thinking about?'

'Nothing really,' she says, wondering if she should tell him about the way the power station appears on the map. But she decides not to. He will only start talking about the issues again. 'I'll try to cheer up.'

The soup is followed by roast pheasant. Robert serves it in the kitchen.

'Good job we brought that sharp knife,' he says. 'The ones here are as blunt as…whatever things get as blunt as.' The knife had been Vanessa's idea. She knew from experience that they wouldn't find one here with any sort of edge to it. Robert never believes her when she says they need to pack these sorts of implements, he always thinks she's making a fuss. Not that he'd worry if they found they were without something. He'd just go and buy it. The corkscrew was her idea too. While they are eating Vanessa asks about Lawrence's father.

'Nothing much to tell,' says Robert, his mouth half full of food. He swallows, then picks up his glass and gulps down a mouthful of wine before continuing. 'He was only here a couple of minutes. You wouldn't have guessed he was a vicar, his voice sounded quite normal.'

Vanessa is curious to meet Lawrence's father but at the same time she's worried that they won't find anything to talk about. She hates the empty platitudes which people exchange when they have nothing to say. She particularly hates it in herself because she knows she can do better.

'What will we talk about?' she asks, thinking aloud.

'Oh I don't know, lots of things.' Robert takes another mouthful of wine. Vanessa worries that Lawrence's father may want to talk about religion. She has never been religious. The universe is too vast, she thinks, for it to have a creator capable of taking a personal interest in individual people's lives. She believes this brief life is all she can expect and she has to make the most of it. Robert's thoughts are obviously running along similar lines though he has a different perspective.

'You can understand how, in a place like this, people might believe in God,' he says. 'These peaks and the stillness of the lakes make the idea of a creator almost plausible. It has a kind of human scale.' Vanessa says nothing. She finds nothing benign in this landscape the way Robert does. She thinks of it as neutral, indifferent to her small existence. 'I suppose that's what Wordsworth is all about,' he continues.

'I think I'm more in sympathy with Coleridge,' Vanessa replies. 'He couldn't take all this beauty. It reminded him too much of the passing of time.' She had intended to say 'reminded him of death' but she thought this would sound too morbid.

'I suppose it depends on temperament,' Robert says, determined not to be deflated. Robert is the type who would find these mountains 'healing'. He's a romantic, she thinks. Vanessa cannot feel that way. She wants change in her life, not reconciliation.

IV

Lawrence's father is shorter than she had expected. He looks well for his age, the result, she supposes, of having led an active life. He is dressed casually in a thick brown sweater, grey woollen trousers and red carpet slippers. He arranges chairs for them and throws some more wood on the fire.

'There, make yourselves comfortable while I take your coats,' he says. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece strikes eight. Vanessa takes off her waterproof and scarf. The room is small, the front door blocked up and the only light is from the fire and from a desk lamp by the window. She checks her appearance in the mirror which hangs above the fireplace, an old octagonal glass without a frame. Her hair is a little untidy from the walk and she straightens it.

'I'm afraid I don't have much in the house to eat.' Lawrence's father says, placing a tin of biscuits on the table with some knives and plates and a jar of rum butter. 'Do you like rum butter?' Vanessa tells him she loves it and he hands her a plate. 'I have a friend who brings me a jar every Christmas,' he says.

From the kitchen the boiling kettle emits a loud whistle and he goes to make the tea. Vanessa inspects the room. There is a large bookcase in one corner full of theology books and poetry. On the desk there is a book lying open next to a sheet of paper with a few lines written on it in black ink. Before she has time to read them, Lawrence's father returns. Robert is already placing a thickly buttered biscuit in his mouth.

'So what have you been up to since you arrived?' he asks setting the teapot on its brass stand by the fire.

'Walking mostly,' Robert says, and he runs through the names of the various places they have visited. Vanessa doesn't say much. She lets Robert talk for both of them. He ends by telling about the walk that afternoon, including how they lost their way. Robert treats this as a joke.

'It's easily done in the snow,' says the old man. But Vanessa suspects he is simply being polite. If one belonged here one would not make these kind of mistakes, she thinks. Lawrence's father suggests other places they might visit. Robert explains that they only have one more day of holiday left.

'We'll have to save them for next time,' he says. Vanessa feels gloomy at the thought of returning home. She is afraid that the routines will take hold again and that she will let life drift on. Though she feels she cannot stay with Robert, she cannot imagine the end either. Practical difficulties occupy her thoughts, like where she will live and how they will divide up the possessions they have accumulated together. She knows there is no way to manage a separation cleanly. It is this which she dreads most of all.

'Lawrence said you grew up here,' Robert is saying. The old man confirms this. Vanessa hadn't known.

'And have you lived here all your life?' she asks.

'Mostly,' he says. 'I had a couple of brief spells away.' Vanessa feels envious of his rootedness. There is nowhere she thinks of as home. Her parents moved twice when she was a child and the secret places of her infancy have long since disappeared under tarmac and concrete.

'Don't you worry about living so close to the power station?' Robert asks.

'I'm concerned about it. But at my age there's not much point worrying about dying.' He smiles.

'What do people round here think about the idea of living on top of a nuclear dump? Robert asks.

'Well you have to remember that most of them depend on it for their livelihoods. This area was devastated during the thirties you know. Some people here still remember that.'

'Aren't people worried?'

'Yes, many don't like it. But the authorities don't tell you much about what's going on and it's difficult to get to the bottom of many of the stories you hear. The media like to play things up. For the most part people have found a way to accommodate its existence.' Vanessa thinks about the old lady at the coal merchant's.

'People believe what they want to believe I suppose,' Vanessa says.

'That doesn't mean there isn't a right and a wrong,' Robert interjects.

'No, that's right,' Lawrence's father says, 'though the issues are complex.' Vanessa feels chastened, though she hadn't meant to sound so dismissive. Truth is not the issue, she thinks. Lawrence's father, more than anyone, should understand this. People need to be able to imagine a future. They have to believe they will survive.

'What would Wordsworth have made of it all?' she asks to change the subject.

'Oh, he'd have hated it,' the old man says.

'Really?' says Vanessa, uncertain if this is the answer she had expected or not.

'Oh yes, he didn't like technological change. He was opposed to the railway coming here for instance. He even wrote a sonnet about it. "Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault," or something like that. It's not a very good sonnet I might add.' He pours more tea and offers them more biscuits.

'Would he ever have come near this village?' Robert asks.

'Right along this road,' Lawrence's father replies. 'He had a friend at Whitehaven. He and Coleridge used to walk over from Grasmere and would have come right past here. When I was younger I used to do that walk myself. But I couldn't do it now.'

Vanessa thinks that the excursions she and Robert have been making hardly merit the name 'walks' compared to the feats of distance Lawrence's father is talking about. She feels they ought to be doing more. One day they won't be able to. She wonders what it must be like to be at the end of one's life looking back. She wants to have a full life so that when she is old she will be able at least to say I did this and this and this, tangible achievements. She supposes that such memories are some kind of consolation.

'I did think of moving away at one time,' Lawrence's father continues. 'That was a few years ago, after my wife died. But I'm too used to it here now.'

'Were you married long?' Vanessa asks.

'Forty-two years,' the old man says with a smile. 'I thought she would outlive me.'

'That's a long time,' says Robert, echoing Vanessa's own thought. It is the time she has been with Robert seven times over. She looks up to find Lawrence's father watching her and for a moment she has the uncanny feeling that he has read her mind. But she tells herself she is being silly. All the same she suddenly feels disturbed. She feels as though she ought to say something but she takes up her cup and saucer instead. She wonders if the old man has noticed her confusion. If he has he shows no sign of it.

'I'll put the kettle on again,' he says.

V

Robert sits at the table playing the guitar, fingering his way hesitantly through a piece in a book of guitar studies. On the table is a pile of books he brought with him. There are volumes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, De Quincey's Recollections of the Lake Poets, a book about Morecambe Bay. Vanessa leans forward in her chair and stirs the embers in the grate. The fire has burned right down and it is getting cold in the room. It is nearly midnight however, so she doesn't put any more coal on the fire. Instead she gets up and puts on the electric fan heater. Robert puts down his guitar.

'Fancy another drink?' he says. Vanessa accepts though she is already feeling drowsy. She knows she could have gone to bed, it wouldn't have mattered to Robert, but somehow she feels it is important that she stays up to see the New Year in.

Robert fills two glasses with whiskey and hands one to her. She returns to her chair and picks up the book on geological history she is reading, opening it at the bookmark. Then she decides she is too distracted to read and closes it again.

'This bit always makes me feel a little panicky,' Robert says. 'The final minutes of the year ticking away. It's unnerving.'

'You're supposed to think about friends,' Vanessa says.

'I know,' he says, drinking the whiskey back and taking the bottle to pour himself another. 'All the same it feels eerie somehow.'

'Tell me what you've been reading about,' Vanessa says. Robert fits the cork back in the bottle carefully before replying.

'I've been reading about what an unpleasant human being Wordsworth was. That's De Quincey's view anyway. De Quincey really got to dislike Wordsworth.'

'I thought he worshipped him,' says Vanessa. Robert explains that that was earlier in his life, before he'd even met Wordsworth. Wordsworth had shown a lot of ingratitude towards De Quincey later on and De Quincey resented it.

'He was really bitter about it,' Robert says.

'Maybe it was because Wordsworth had changed,' Vanessa volunteers.

'Maybe,' Robert answers. He seems not to want to discuss it further. 'What about you?' he asks after a pause.

'I've been reading about the ice ages,' Vanessa says. 'It's strange, this afternoon I was thinking of all that earth history somehow being static; millions of years of ice when nothing happened, everything frozen and unmoving. But if you think of that time all speeded up, everything was moving around all over the place. The Sahara was once at the South Pole.'

'If you'd been there though everything would have seemed pretty static,' Robert says. 'It depends on your point of view.' Vanessa looks at him, wondering if she has explained herself properly. She feels slightly foolish that she could have become so excited about the idea of the continents flowing over the earth, ice advancing and retreating. All of these things are familiar to Robert.

The alarm on Robert's phone goes off. 'Midnight,' he announces. 'The New Year has arrived. He gets up from his chair, draws back the curtain over the door and lifts the latch. Outside the night is clear. No more snow has fallen. The path is still marked by the trail of footprints they made earlier. Across the road the fields lie silent under their white covering and further along the next cottage is dark. Maybe everyone is out, Vanessa thinks. In the distance fireworks light up the sky but the sound is far away. Robert starts trying to guess the outline of constellations.

'There, isn't that Orion?' he says. Vanessa doesn't know. 'There's something over there too,' Roberts says. 'But I can't remember what it's called.'

Vanessa stands in the doorway watching Robert who is pointing up into the night sky. Then she looks down at her small footprints in the soft, powdery snow. So this is it then,' she thinks, 'this is the future.'