Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Something That Would Never Normally Happen

Jennifer Thompson

When the snow began, Winnie and I had already hunkered down, and were involved with a documentary about rickets. The screen was agonised with small scrapes of white on account of the weather, but Winnie was crazy for television about disease. She watched with her body hinged forward, constructing the same questionable sounds towards each show until it ended. Then she would turn to me in an attitude of severity, and say, ‘Honey, at least old age isn’t that bad.’

We’d spent the afternoon sipping drinks that Winnie liked to call her specials. She would pronounce the word with pride, ‘How’d you like a special?’ she’d say. Mostly these were the sorts of soft drinks that were supposed to be enjoyed ice-cold. Only Winnie would heat them until the carbon flattened, leaving a thick and stagnant glucose. Sipping on a special was like inhaling the air inside a stale and breathless carriage filled with the sour scents of other people. But I got used to them.

We’d sat with our limbs in a blanket, entirely engrossed in the weather warnings that had been playing for most of the day. Heavy snow was forecast. Blizzards. Black ice. Weather-related cancellations. All of these predictions were something that pleased me. They were the kind of predictions I wanted to have something to do with, which is probably why I volunteered for the end of year shifts. My father took care of Winnie in summer and spring, and I sat tight through autumn and winter.

Where Winnie lived, heavy snow meant heavy snow. Snow so thick and fast it was like being underwater. It pinwheeled a white-out like something that was meant to dissolve dirt, leaving a violent cleanliness to the air and the buildings. Not like the snow in London that disintegrates like wet newspaper, blackened to kerb and fume.

Each year I became familiar with the weather presenters, and their particular look of a person forging professionalism while concealing an idiotic thrill. The weather woman that day had a voice like something anthropomorphic, and lips that were too full of lip. But when Winnie had turned to the rickets show, I had missed her already.

While the documentary was running I sat in a chair by the window to watch it fall, sipping a hot Coke. It was already falling fast and through the orange lint of a street lamp it looked like science fiction, like the view from a shuttle as it powered its way through space.

Before, the sky had been as white as a fresh ground covering, and the only thing marking a break in the whiteness was a rank of splayed houses, their wooden walls sulking against the cold.

I could hear Winnie’s melancholy behind me, and the optimistic melody of the show’s tragic score. We had tried for many years to prevent her from watching these programmes, but in the end she had said that illness is just something you have to get used to in life. It was like learning to love the smell of alcohol on another person’s breath, she said. This is also something you have to learn to do in adulthood, no matter how repugnant it may be.

Winnie lived in a small bungalow on a street of other small bungalows. Behind the street was an area of trees that to walk through was like being a small creature wandering a target of thrown spears. Inside we spent most of our time in the orange and oak living room, sitting on sunken loungers that were depressed into the lamplight.

When it snowed like that, it felt like survival. There was the intoxicating possibility of fatalities. Normally, this never came to much more than a fallen tree or a ruptured power line, but the potential mauled through the cadence of the weather presenter’s warnings, gathered its knees against the window, and electrified a kind of drama that wouldn’t be otherwise viable. There was something uncannily heroic about it, and this was a thing that I enjoyed.

When the documentary had finished, Winnie was abnormally quiet. She swallowed a collection of upbeat coloured pills without her usual gnarled expression, her scuff of complaints. I turned back to the weather and her poise remained hinged and stiffened.

A crew had slugged its way out into the snow, balancing cameras and large microphones. Various night shots played back in the corner of the screen, as the weather woman made gestures to signal the mock-ferocity and charge of each situation. The wincing neon from a closed café, residential shots of the most affluent parts of the town, in which large fireplaces probably licked warmth towards homely academics, a longer reel of an empty lot, in which heavily dressed teenagers slipped and hollered in the snow, girls and boys throwing it at one another in ways that were most likely flirtatious.

To this last scene, Winnie gave out a strange sound from somewhere in her throat, her lips remaining entirely still. I looked over to find her watching me.

‘OK, Winnie?’

‘What a thrill it must be to be young in this weather.’

I nodded in an affectation suggesting I was older than I actually was. She let out a noise, and grabbed out for my hand with her old skin.

‘What you doing holed up in here with an old lady? You should be out with those folks, playing about.’

‘Don’t be silly, I’d rather be watching from here.’

‘When I was your age, life was spectacular.’

She shook her head. Her voice held an unsteady inflection. It was the voice of an old lady who had used her voice too much. I started miming a comeback but decided against it. The weather was spectacular enough, I’d wanted to say. I was the sort of person who thought that this was sometimes enough.

Winnie said she wanted to go to bed earlier than usual. I settled her down like a kind of nurse, giving her a jug of hot water that would soon be cold again, and making sure the collection of celebrity magazines were fresh. ‘Goodnight, Winnie,’ I said. But there was little response.

When it was snowing I never slept too much. My room was a chaos of magazines and drawings, thrown clothes, piles of books, disorganised colours from a blanket heap and a dim lamp illuminating patchwork. Despite the cold I left the curtains pulled wide, so I could watch the snow as it fell.

Outside, the trees were spectral, and the thin strips of light from a neighbour’s window, chalky and difficult to see. The wind was pushing the snow up against the side of the house like a slalom, already it had reached the sill. I wrapped my limbs in the patchwork and sat up against the pillow with a cigarette, watching the flakes like something thrown at a celebration, only in slow motion.

Once I was involved with a man who said my penchant for severe weather was odd. He grew tired of the way sex was better in a heavy rain or else with the wind rattling against the windows. I tried to explain that it wasn’t anything to do with him, that perhaps it was just a more interesting scene-setter or an enhancer, like the backlight to a painting hanging in a museum. But despite this, he had already moved on.

The thing I liked most about the weather was the chance of hysterics. This was a thing that never normally happened day-to-day. By this I meant genuine hysterics, not the sort that are displayed by certain unbearable human characteristics, but the sort that leave a heady aftermath, a sharp stillness, revealing as a blank page.

It was still snowing when I woke the next morning, only softer. The whiteness coming through the window was blinding and I could see my own breath in the coldness of the room. Winnie normally waited until I had turned up the heat before getting out of bed, the cold was too much she said. She should have moved to Mexico.

Drifts had pushed up the side of the house like buttresses, and when I opened the front door there was a mound too big to pass. The ploughers would be along later with their shovels and salt. I put some coffee on the stove and thought about getting out.

Winnie hadn’t woken. I sat waiting, drawing the snow but all it was, was white. The weather woman was predicting more for later in the day.

When I went to check Winnie’s room, there was no faint smoke of chalked breath coming from near her pillow. There was no rattling coming gently from her lungs. I shut her door and sat frozen by the television. A pair of snow boots were waiting by the door. They were waiting for the ploughers who would be along soon with their huge vaults of salt.