Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
(‘Macbeth’: Act 5, scene 5)
With turned, frozen earth stinking sharp on his big coat and gritting black under his fingernails, he checked the side lane was empty before clinking the allotment gate shut behind him. Only when the iron bolt had slid home and the padlock was locked tight in his fist did he stop to take in a needling lungful of December night. It stalactited right into his guts and sharpened his senses so that he could hear the crump of the packed snow as he shifted his bulk, leaning this way and that under a bright tossed handful of winter stars. Craning his head right back, he turned on the spot, the swirl of the universe making him dizzy, and he smiled up a hot plume of breath.
He was already late and his wife would be worried – she always worried these days, ticking and tapping round the house like a mindless clockwork mouse – but this had become a special night and he just wanted to stand there and soak in it for a few moments. The allotment lay off the main street and at this time of year and night none of the other tenants of this modest smudge of green in all the tarmac and concrete and brick would stop by, so he was alone. He wasn’t even worried about the footsteps: two sets going in; only his coming out. It was one of those rare, rare winter nights when snow had come down thick and shushed the world and he had it all to himself.
He looked at his hands, marvelling as he always did at the veins and muscular fingers strengthened by all those years of physical work, of hard, honest graft. He turned them over, still proud that retirement had not robbed them of their iron.
There isn’t any blood, why would there be? Why do you look?
There was dirt, however, and he would have to wash them before his wife saw. Before she knew he hadn’t just been for one of his walks. He fisted his Macbeth hands and pushed them deep into his coat pockets.
He paused, considered going back to check the lock on the allotment gate, then decided against it. He knew if he did, he’d end up cleaning his tools again, then inevitably he’d go behind his shed to stir through the fire embers in the old oil drum, just to be sure. Then he would pause and stare at the patch of turned over soil. And he’d get to thinking…
A shiver shook him free and he left the lane to join the main road, aware again of the fresh footprints his boots were leaving. He eyed them as they came up the road, through the allotment entrance and back out. So many of them, he thought, and felt weary in a way that would not have happened a few years ago. Another sign that even his body, made solid by years of hard labour, was starting to betray him. Perhaps retiring had been a mistake, but his wife had worn him down with her drip, drip, drip comments, like water onto stone. His hands were still strong, but his bones ached in the cold. Besides, the heavy clouds now moving in from the horizons would bring more snow in the early hours of the morning and cover the footprints over. And who would visit the allotment this late in this cold? It was a risk – in many ways the biggest he had ever taken – but it was a calculated one, and he was not a man to change his mind easily once it was set.
The main road was quilted in suburban quiet, lined with semi-detached houses with economical cars in the drives. He stared at the closest houses, the flickering of television lights around the edges of drawn curtains. No-one had seen him leave the allotment lane, he was sure of that.
A salt-spreading truck had been past earlier, but a thick flurry earlier in the evening had undone all its work, the road surface only distinguishable from the pavements by the rounded humps of the curbs. He frowned with distaste at the way the streetlights stained over the bluish hue of starlight on snow with their sickly orange all the way up the hill, all the way to his house.
The nearest streetlight etched his shadow sharp against the snow. He paused to look at it, admiring the way he bulked across the ground, not quite the shape of a man, but a hulking darkness with shaved head round and sunken into his bulwarked, upturned collar. He wondered if this is how he had looked to the girl, but her face turned up to look at him hadn’t been scared as she’d pulled the piece of paper out of her pink anorak. Her brown eyes peeping over the picture of a black and white cat had entranced him.
* * * * * *
It hadn’t been too late, a few hours ago in early evening, but still deep dark and he’d been surprised to find her out by herself. Coming across someone else on his walks was rare, and even then usually only dog walkers. Yet here was a little girl, out alone and waving a piece of paper up at him.
‘Jefferson ran away last night and hasn’t come back. Mummy went to her friend’s house ages ago and hasn’t come back yet. She promised to look for him but I know she’s forgotten so I’m going to find him.’ All in clouds of breathlessness.
Bending down to look into her round face framed by a pink hood pulled tight, he had seen how her anorak was dirty, how her laces were untied on her off-white and unicorn-pink trainers, how a knot of hair poking out was greasy and a nothing shade of brown. His nod was enough for her to follow in his big wake. As they walked the short distance to the allotment, she told him that she had an older brother but he lived away with her dad so he couldn’t help her. It was just her and her mum.
She clutched the picture in both hands, regularly stopping to check under cars and in bushes, calling out ‘Jefferson’ while he kept his head hunched down and scanned the road ahead. He could see the turn off to the lane that led down to the allotment not far away.
* * * * * *
As he trudged through the snow away from the allotment, the streetlights revolving his shadow around him like a time-lapsed sundial, he imagined arriving home. The porch light would be on and he wouldn’t even be through the gate before the door would open, an unsteady figure once pleasantly rounded but now too thick in the legs and hips silhouetted against the hallway as she pulled her nightgown around her dumpiness and sherry stink.
And as he stamped the snow from his boots the questions would start. Why had he been so long? Didn’t he remember she had said tea would be out at seven? Did he enjoy making her worry so much? And he would shoulder past her to eat his cooling food in silence while she cried herself into numbness on Jenny’s bed. Sometimes when he returned – on the really bad nights when she’d been drinking heavily – she’d be leaning against the doorway with a flat, bovine look on her face and ask, ‘Did you find her?’ When she was like that she couldn’t even remember Jenny had disappeared years ago.
His walks were his escape.
As his shadow swung by again, he smiled at the snowmen in the gardens, most of them lopsided things, not like the ones he’d used to make with Jenny. His smile soured into a frown. He’d not thought of that for years. It hadn’t snowed properly for a long, long time, but even so, he didn’t like to think he might be forgetting things about her. His wife had tried to swamp her loss with drink, and she had melted her beauty and strength away with it, but he’d held onto the pain, crushed and squeezed his grief into a diamond hardness that glittered in his eyes, that made other men – younger men – look away first. And he’d used the strength and pride it gave him to defy time and age while he’d come to despise his wife’s soft-wax shapelessness.
Yet he had forgotten making the snowmen, all the same. He tramped on, scowling as he passed another glorified lump of snow with hollowed eyes and Morse code mouth. As his breath steamed he realised that the weariness was growing, that the way seemed steeper today. His shadow revolved around him as he walked, and he felt exposed as he entered the orange pool of another streetlight, its midge-buzz setting his teeth on edge. He supposed it was nothing but the ebb of his adrenaline. That must be why he sweated under his big coat tonight. He glanced up and saw he was nearly halfway up the hill. Did you find her? asked his wife’s voice in his head. Not her, was his reply tonight.
* * * * * *
She told him she was called Chelsea as he unlocked the allotment gate. He had merely nodded, not speaking, when she asked if Jefferson might be in there. She babbled on, flapping the picture of her cat, but he was only aware of the coldness of the gate iron and the way his bulky hands made the padlock seem small, like he could crush it if he curled his fingers.
As he slow-swung the gate shut behind them again, Chelsea bounced with impatience and ran off along a snowy path, still calling. He paused with the padlock in his hand, looking at their footprints – his deep and spaced out in furrows, her sparrow prints weaving to and fro – then clicked it locked. The lane outside was empty and tucked away between scratchy hedgerows. They hadn’t seen a single soul out on the roads.
He called to her before she scampered over the neighbouring plots, his tight voice surprising him. His duffel coat hid it, but inside its thickness he was trembling. ‘Have you seen Jeffy?’ she panted and although the allotments were bordered by high trees and hedges on all sides, he flinched at the loudness of her voice and ushered her over to his shed in its shadowed corner away from the reach of the streetlights.
Chelsea darted around, the picture still in one winter-pink hand, untied laces trailing and sodden. She dropped to her knees to look in the gap underneath the shed, oblivious to her grey tights darkening with damp, called the cat’s name twice then bounced up and danced around the corner to the back. He followed, his hands now out of his pockets.
* * * * * *
Swearing at his weakness, he had to stop and lean on a wall for a rest, his shadow mimicking him by reaching up and lolling on the bricks next to him. He’d never had to stop on the hill before and felt a pang of worry. Undoing a button on his duffel coat, he reached inside and rested his hand over his heart. It was thumping away inside his shirt in a way he did not like. His doctor had only told him last month that he had the ticker of a man a decade younger. As the blood pressure band tightened against his hard bicep, he’d told the doctor he knew that already and had only come to stop his wife’s nagging. Yet his heart was busy doing the can-can inside his chest now and his scalp steamed under his close-cropped grey and white stubble.
Just the last of the adrenaline. He should have given his body a few moments to calm down before walking home, that’s all.
Taking in a few lungfuls of cold air revived him a little and as he set off his shadow left the wall and slid around him, undulating over the bumpy snow. He watched it revolve as he passed through another pool of orange light, gritting his teeth against the streetlight fizz. Undoing the rest of the buttons on his coat, he resolved to lengthen his strides and not to stop and rest again, even if it meant facing his wife’s damned questions sooner.
* * * * * *
He kept a pile of branches and a metal oil drum for burning rubbish and nothing much else behind the shed. It was a small space and didn’t get much light under the canopy of a big elm, even in summer. Now the December night sky showed through the branches, but this place was hidden from the rest of the allotment, tucked away in a far corner none of the other plot owners had shown any interest in.
Chelsea’s coat looked dirty grey in the gloom of the shed’s shadow, her face dark in her hood except for the whites framing her eyes. He just stood next to the oil drum, watching her, as she paced around the branch pile, peering into the shadows under the elm, wary of going into them. She kept calling for the cat but more quietly, less often now, hope draining out of her.
And as he watched her, he remembered those winter nights years ago when he had gone out looking for Jenny, long after the police had called off their search, walking until he blistered, hoarse with calling. And he had kept going out to look, kept returning home to shake his head and go upstairs so he didn’t have to listen to his wife’s despair.
Eventually he’d walked just to take down the posters so he didn’t have to look at Jenny’s face on every lamp post and bus stop, and now he walked just to walk, because it was a normality his wife wouldn’t allow at home.
He realised that he was clenching his jaw tight and Chelsea was looking up at him with wet cheeks inside her hood, asking where Jeffy had run off to. He shook his head and picked her up and hugged her to him. He pressed her wet face into his duffel coat and looked up into the black lightning-fork branches of the elm tree and hugged her as tight as he could.
After a while, the piece of paper with the cat picture on it drifted down to settle on the snow.
* * * * * *
He stumbled, banging his hip against a garden gate, but ploughed on through the snow, his swinging clock hand shadow marking off the metres. His boots felt too big, his coat too heavy, the street lamps too bright as they spotlighted his footprints behind him, etching his path back to the allotment where smaller feet had followed him through the gate. He wished he’d erased all those prints now and cursed the stars showing in between the orange lights, up in a clear sky. The forecast had promised more snow – he remembered it saying so distinctly – but he still couldn’t see a single cloud overhead.
His heart felt like it was trying to elbow its way of his body. Sweat dotted through his shirt when he put a hand to his chest, a whiff of soil from his black fingernails turning his stomach. He tried not to watch his shadow as it came round again but it drew his eyes and as it slid into the edge of his vision he staggered into a low fence and had to stop. Across a trimmed front garden the house windows were mercifully dark, so he half-squatted, half-leaned, thankful for the shadow.
He imagined the footprints outside the allotments glowing in the damn streetlights, back down the hill. Felt the urge to turn around. To go back.
He walked on, determined not to look behind him as his shadow traced its clockwise path around him, inking darker as he reached the next streetlight. He swore he could actually feel the life drain from his body, like a plug had been pulled somewhere, as the shadow completed another circuit. He sagged to another stop, his coat hanging loose on him, gripped his knees, bent over.
The orange light threw the veins on his hands into relief and he stared at his thin fingers, swollen knuckles and long nails still dark with soil. The hands of an old man. They shook as he held them up and he gasped at their frailness, at the chicken bone wrists loose with doughy skin. He had worked with his hands all of his life, hauling and chopping and bending things to his will with them. But these were his father’s hands, last seen folded over his chest in death. He remembered watching with disgust as time had guillotined at the man he’d once admired, slicing him thinner and thinner until he slid easily into a small coffin.
And now he wondered at his shadow blading ahead of him and all of those footsteps behind him and he was scared. And he thought about all the time since losing Jenny. All that time spent raging and defying that damned guillotine. Time had stood still behind the allotment shed, he had made it stand still for the girl, but out here under all the clockwork stars he couldn’t stop it ticking on.
My shadow, revolving away the years. A thought like a fever dream. I’m dying, piece by piece. Is this a punishment? Years of defiance – the debt being called in? Haven’t I suffered enough?
Panting, he looked up the hill, counting the streetlights to his house. He thought he could make out the glow of the front porch light where his wife would be waiting, sherry-warm. His vision blurred. He rubbed his eyes and the smell of freshly turned soil reeked from his corpse hands and he gagged and coughed, his teeth feeling loose in his mouth and he tasted blood.
No. Not like this. Not on his own street for everyone to see him, helpless. He remembered their pitying stares when the police called off the search for Jenny, the hands on his shoulder and the cards through the door. And he hated them all for thinking it made him weak.
What if I go back, back to the allotment, with my shadow going the other way round? Will I get back my minutes and months and years?
A small girl with a blue coat and yellow shoes stood in his way, looking up at a sheet of paper stuck to a lamppost several feet away. For a horrible, hollow second, he thought it was Chelsea, perhaps come to ask him if he seen her cat. Her hood was up, but when he saw a braided ponytail of hair hanging out of its shadow, he knew who she was and held out an old hand towards her. Her name came out as a croak. She didn’t move, still staring at the paper, as he worked up some spit. He remembered how he’d told her to wear that coat before she went out, even when she argued that the shop was only a few minutes away. He had held it for her as she slipped her arms into the sleeves, grumbling she was too old for it.
The girl didn’t turn, but looked up at the sky now, a hint of cheek and snub nose inside the hood making his chest hurt. Peering up past the streetlights, he saw the stars were gone, covered over in dark rolls of cloud. Flakes of snow speckled the sky, then fell through the orange lights to tickle his cold face. He smiled with the memory of Jenny whooping out into the garden at the first sign of snow to stand cross-eyed and trying to catch a flake on her stuck out tongue.
His grin crumpled when he looked back down and saw she was gone. He flailed to where she had stood, to where only two footprints, two small pools of dark, remained. As he watched, the snowflakes dropped fatter and heavier and the prints started to fill and lose shape and then fade away.
The piece of paper remained, taped to the streetlight, and he groaned as he saw the picture and the writing – ‘MISSING’ printed in blocky font across the top – just as they had been all those years ago on street after street.
Now he’d lost her again and he felt the last tendril of his years-forged strength break. And there was his shadow as stark as ever and pointing onwards across the orange stained snow, but it was a crooked thing now, all bone and broken glass angles. The air was cold on his thin skin and he was old and frail and he would have to return home without their daughter again.
He tore the poster down, shocked by its chilly realness and the sharpness of the crumpled paper. The snow whited out the road back down to the allotment, signs of his passing long gone, no doubt covering over the freshly turned, small black rectangle of soil behind the shed and greying the embers in the oil drum. He shuddered inside his big coat, rubbing his head as flakes tickled his scalp. His shaking hands came away with clumps of white hair, like holding thin pieces of winter, and he let them fall invisible into the snow.
His eyes blurred again but he could still make out the glow of his front porch light. Home was so close. If he could make it back he would be all right. His wife was waiting for him, wrapped in her warmest dressing gown, and he would tell her he had seen Jenny, that he couldn’t bring her back this time but he had found her and she was still beautiful and young. Yes, he would get home, get strong again and come back out and save her.
He pulled his coat around tighter and stumbled on up the hill into the darkness before the next streetlight, trying to ignore his shadow as it wheeled away out of sight behind him. His breathing was loud in the hushed world as snow mounded ever higher over the pavement and sucked at the boots that grew looser on his feet. He pulled them free and dragged onwards, pulled them free and dragged onwards again, moth-fixed on the light of home. He’d used to scoff when his dad complained that he could feel the cold in his bones; it seeped so deeply into him now that he ached down to the marrow.
He grimaced through another pool of orange streetlight as his shadow completed another circuit and came around to stretch out in front. He stumbled, unable to lift a leg high enough out of the snow and fell forward, the cold of it gasping the breath out of his lungs. Forcing back tears and terror, he crawled on with numb arms, his shadow crawling next to him as he scraped a shallow furrow up the road.
In the final glow of orange before home, he stopped and coughed. The red shine of his blood was shocking on the blankness of the snow under him. Chelsea, kneeling in the snow, her tights getting wet, calling for her cat. He coughed another blood spray and gritted red teeth. His house was there, right there – he could see the snow swirling in the porch light.
And then he saw Jenny sitting on the wall by his gate, swinging her yellow shoes and waiting for him in her blue coat with the hood still up. She was looking down at the piece of paper she held.
She’s giving me a second chance!
He could do it. He would get to her and he’d take her inside to his wife. He felt the blood smearing his face as he wiped his mouth, didn’t care, crying as he crawled out of the light and into the last patch of darkness. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel his shadow start to revolve around him, praying he could reach Jenny before it completed its final revolution.
They might have been swarming snowflakes, but he could see the small white flowers on Jenny’s coat now. Daisies. They are daisies. He called again as he crawled towards her. She didn’t look up from the sheet of paper. He could see how one of her laces trailed undone and he tried to call louder as his shadow slid out to the side, coming round into his vision, but his throat was too tight and his mouth too dry and his breathing too thin for her to hear.
His left arm cracked as it gave way and he thumped down into the snow. There wasn’t any pain, but when he turned his head he saw it was crooked, like a thin branch shearing from a tree. He could feel the thinness of his bones and over his fluttered breathing he listened to his ribs creak. Rolling his eyes up, he groaned when he saw that the wall was empty and Jenny was gone again. The sheet of paper was still there, bright in the porch light spilling through the gate.
Feeling the weight of the snowflakes mounding on his head and on his back and legs, he thought how nice it would be to just lie there and let the snow cover him over in whiteness until he was blanked out and erased, like the two sets of footprints that had led into the allotments and the one pair that had come back out.
The piece of paper. He had to know what it was. He dreaded seeing the word ‘MISSING’ again, yet what if it wasn’t the poster? What if it was a letter from Jenny? He could give it to his wife and she would be happy again and she would help bring him back from…from this. He would wash the stink of soil from his hands and he would get strong again. Jenny would want that. In her letter, she would forgive them for losing her, forgive him for the things his grief had made him do. And his wife could stop leaving the light on in the porch every night.
He eyed the distance to the letter, to his gate. One arm dragging by his side, he curled and uncurled like a landed fish, inching forwards. Dark and distorted and inevitable, his shadow came on.
The fingers on his good hand reached for the piece of paper and clawed it to his face, its writing huge as he rolled an eye over it.
A child’s drawing. A crayoned cat and chicken scratch writing that said, ‘Jefferson.’ He tried to push it away with fingers that crumbled as they stretched.
His shadow clicked into place at twelve o’clock dead ahead of him.
* * * * * *
Pulling her dressing gown tightly around her, his wife shivered on the front step, watching the snow swirl through the porch light. She swayed, her breath cloudy with strong sherry, and peered out into the street, looking for her husband’s bowed head over the hedges and fences stretching down the hill. In the long unchanging days in their cold house, he would keep telling her their daughter was gone forever. He was too stubborn and weak to hold onto hope, but when she was alone and the world blurry with alcohol, she would remember that Jenny’s body had never been found, so she would drink some more and let herself believe for one more evening. And when he returned from his damned walks, she would not see the weariness in his face, the greyness of his eyes, and she would ask the same question she always asked.
He was very late now and the sherry heat was being leeched away by the air. She shuffled out in her slippers onto the snowy path and up to the gate, her footprints weaving behind her. Brushing snow from the gate top, she leaned out and looked down the road. The pavement was empty all the way and she could just make out the turnoff to the allotments at the bottom, but she knew he didn’t go there this time of year. The road going the other way was also empty.
Teeth starting to chatter, she looked down the hill again. The way the light from the nearest street lamp puddled in a shallow depression nearby caught her eye. Checking nobody was around, she opened the gate and went out. As she neared the depression, she inhaled carefully, sure she could detect a trace of freshly-dug earth in the air. It was dark and moist and sharp against the scentless white all around her.
The bottom of the depression was black and, squatting down, she dipped a finger into it. It was soft and powdery on her fingertips and when she brought them up to her nose they smelled not just of soil as she expected, but also of fire and charcoal. She rubbed her fingers and watched grey dust puff up into the air, where it was lost in the streetlight glow and snowflakes.
Wiping her fingers on her nightgown, she went back up to the path. She decided that she would thaw her shivers with another sherry and she would sit by the window and carry on waiting for her husband to return from his walk. He would be back soon, and she wanted to ask him if he had seen Jenny.
Credit: Gareth Shore
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