A daughter struggles to get home to her dying father...
The weather report was not promising. Snow. The motorways would be a cold, icy hell. Didn’t matter. She had to get home.
The M23 was not too bad. Most people must have looked out at the gently falling snow and decided to stay put. She held her speed at a steady sixty, fighting the urge to go faster, knowing that this was already too fast for the conditions. Snowflakes whirled towards the windscreen and were flung away to lie on the hard shoulder in ever deeper layers.
The gritting lorries had been out, spraying crushed rock salt across the lanes. The inner lane was almost clear of the snow. It had been melted into submission by the passage of tyres. The fast lane was white over, a band of velvet ribbon laid against the dark crash barrier.
On the M25 the snow turned to grimy slush, churned up by the passing traffic. She flinched as a lorry slammed past her, thwarting her attempt to join the motorway. She reduced her speed and slid in behind the massive truck. The lorry’s tyres spat salt and black pellets of ice at her windscreen. She was relieved to be able to move out and get past, the lorry’s lights receding in her rear-view mirror.
There was more traffic here but the snow was lighter, the flakes crushed before they had time to settle. She pushed her speed up and pushed north. The sky shed a silvery light on the scene, draining colour as if the world was being sucked of life. Home, she thought. I have to get home.
The miles drifted by. By the time she reached the M1, the snow was thickening. Visibility dropped and she had to drop her speed. Forty miles per hour. Still too fast, she knew. She measured the miles still to travel, dividing them by her speed, calculating how long the journey would take. Long hours. Maybe too long. Maybe too late. She shook her head as she pushed the thought away. Drive.
The road became an endless tunnel, nothing ahead but snow, beating at the windscreen with ghostly and insistent fingers. Behind, she could see her tyre tracks change from black to white as the snow deepened. Her speed dropped again. The windscreen wipers struggled to clear a view. She drove by instinct, alert to every tiny movement as the car ploughed on.
By the time she reached Leicester hers was the only car on the road. With miles still to go, she began to fear that the weather would beat her. That the snow would win.
She had a sudden memory of snowdrifts, piled high against the house, in a winter long ago. She had walked along the top of the drifts, able to see over buried dry-stone walls which usually reared above her head. Her feet were icy inside her wellingtons and her hands, in woollen mittens, were so cold that they hurt, like daggers. It didn’t matter. From this perspective she felt tall and powerful. Alive.
She hadn’t realised that the snow had started to soften. As she took the next step, she slid straight down, into the heart of the drift. Her body carved a cylinder within the snow, entombing her. She could not move. Helpless she had called out. ‘Daddy!’ There was no reply.
Looking up, she could see the hole she had made in the snow, a foot or more above her head. She called again. ‘Daddy!’ And then the thought: I could die. It was a strange idea to a six year old. She examined it. It was real. It could happen. Unless she got out, it would happen. She knew about the dangers of extreme cold. Animals had died on the farm, in less bitter winters than this.
Her breath clouded the air, skimming the walls of snow with a fine layer of ice. No-one was coming. She would have to rescue herself. She tried pushing at the snow, compacting it so it resisted, pushed back. Fear bubbled but, beneath it, anger. She would not be beaten by snow. She jerked her arm, her elbow digging deep into the tube of snow, creating a tiny space. She bludgeoned the snow, until she had widened it enough to lift one knee. She kicked her boot into the icy wall, her hands seeking a hold, pulling herself up, upwards towards the light.
A hand reached down. She looked up. Her father’s face was there. Close. He’s lying on the snow, she thought, and smiled at the picture in her head.
‘Jenny. Grab hold, love. I’ll pull you out.’
His hand was warm. She held tight, relying on his strength to release her from her icy prison. They lay on top of the drift for a moment.
‘I thought I’d lost you, sweetheart,’ he said.
Me, too, Daddy. Me, too.
The last few miles were worse. The wind had risen after she turned off the motorway. Snow was drifting between the dry-stone walls. The road was bare in places. The wind had swept the snow away, piling it against the verges in sculpted, sharp-edged shapes. She didn’t care. She was nearly home. These were her roads, her hills. The car bounced and slid as she urged it across each mini drift, like a rider cajoling a wayward horse. Not far now.
The walls of the convent, loomed. Beneath the shelter of its walls, the snow was deeper. She struggled and slid but could not barge through. So near. She remembered other winters, other drives across snow blurred hills. As clearly as if he were sitting beside her, she heard her father speak.
‘You'll want to get some toppers off the wall. Give you some heft.’
She stopped the car, engine idling. The snow-capped walls which bounded the frozen fields were not held with mortar. She lifted a heavy granite slab from the top of the wall and placed it in the boot of her car. Another three and she could feel the tyres sink deep into the snow, biting at the buried road surface beneath. This was what her father did, she remembered. All those years ago. This was how they got home.
The light was on in the living room when she finally made it back. She stopped the car, knowing that it would be buried in snow by morning. The door opened. She could see her mother’s figure backlit in the doorway. She got out of the car and stood like a frozen statue in the snow.
‘I’m too late,’ she said. ‘Aren’t I?’
Her mother stepped forward, enveloped her in a hug.
‘He died a few minutes ago, love.’
She leaned into her mother’s arms, tears setting like diamonds on her cheeks. Too late. Too late to say goodbye. The two women turned to go into the house.
‘Did he say anything? Did he know I was coming?’ she asked.
Her mother nodded and smiled through her tears.
‘He said your name. And something about toppers off the wall.’