It came without warning, the white, as quickly as a sigh. There was a moment of silence as he fell, of disbelief, a moment of loss when he thought, “Oh Jill” and reached for her hand which wasn’t there. Then all went black.
She was cold. A finger of ice wriggled along her spine, through the gap at her waistband where her thermal ski top had worked loose. She tried to straighten her clothes but the effort stole her breath so she rested for a moment, looking around, trying to assess where she’d fallen. She had never known quiet could be so dense.
“Bill?” She reassured herself. He wasn’t answering because he hadn’t fallen, was bringing help.
Not knowing which way was uphill or down, left or right, she cursed the loss of her spectacles. Above her was a structure, ghostly in the blankness which surrounded her like an unsatisfactory cheap duvet. Something dark loomed, it was the only thing she could see through the damp air which brushed her face like grubby cotton wool puffs smudged with mascara and eye shadow. It was tall enough to be the spire of a church; perhaps St Peter’s where they had married. Her dress like a froth of bubbly whipped egg whites, the unseen basic cotton knickers – the lucky bit of blue but her splash of rebellion too, with its circular yellow ABBA badge on the bum – the transparent diamond of her engagement ring like a chip of ice in her mother’s gin and tonic. And her mother’s advice about how to achieve a long-standing marriage – like hers with Dad – involving compromise, giving not taking, and the witchery of getting things done by helping her husband think her good idea was originally his so he would accept it without query.
As she lay in the cold cocoon where her body fell, Jill wondered why it had taken her 30 years to realise her mother had talked about having a long-standing marriage not a happy one. This realisation came to her in a sudden rush of senses and with it the acknowledgement of cold, bloody freezing in fact. Only minutes before she fell, she had searched through her bum bag for the tube of suntan cream and slicked a blob on her sore nose. She could make out the strap of the bag to her left, the black line of one ski. She felt strangely dulled and vividly alive all at the same time, like that Italian dessert which combined hot espresso with cold vanilla ice-cream. Except now the warmth was seeping from her like blood from a cut.
As an experiment she tried to move each of her limbs one at a time, ticking them off a checklist: left foot, right foot, left leg, right leg. Her right arm failed to respond. She could feel its presence as a lump beneath her torso, as if she were laying on top of a branch blown down in a storm. A sharp edge. Her arm itself felt of nothing, not even the dull deep ache of a broken bone. It was if the arm wasn’t there at all, a phantom limb.
She knew what a broken bone felt like, having broken her leg in a tricycle upset when she was six involving her, the gate post, and a downhill slope. A combination of thrilling speed inspired by the Famous Five, the breeze in her hair, and forgetting the brake pedal was on the handlebar.
Her arm now did not feel as her leg had then. She couldn’t see it but it must still be attached to her shoulder, mustn’t it. She remembered lying in bed with her broken leg, a hot water bottle, her head woozy. The whole world was in her bedroom, nothing else existed. If she couldn’t see something, it wasn’t there, which had been exciting and scary at the same time. Until she realised she couldn’t see Daddy who was at work and so must be dead, and that frightened her.
Jill didn’t want to think about death. She peered into the grey cotton wool puffs and shivered.
When the moment of disbelief passed, he opened his eyes again. It was a dull February day, when winter seems everlasting and the promise of spring a malicious lie. A bus passed by in a rush of red and a splash of grubby London rainwater, and he took a hasty step back from the edge of the kerb. He rubbed his eyes like a tired toddler, hoping to prove what he had just seen had not been real.
Where had she gone? Jill. Jill kissing. Jill kissing a man, in the street, for everyone to see. It was definitely her, not some lookalike wearing her coat and carrying her blue cotton bag, the only bag big enough to carry War and Peace. It was such untypical Jill-like behaviour that he questioned his sleep-deprived brain. He had come out of the library after another all-nighter and was finding it more natural now to sleep at mid-day, the light filtering through the ill-fitting curtains of his bedsit. Only three weeks until the deadline for his dissertation, more all-nighters to come. The only thing he minded was not seeing Jill.
He hadn’t seen since last week. She was an under-grad, hardly ever in college. He swore she’d take a book to bed if he didn’t complain. She would read anywhere, while eating, in the bath, any spare minute and her nose was in a book. And she often talked about the characters in her book-of-the-moment as if they were real. Gabriel Oak did this, and Ursula said this but Gudrun thought that. Bill didn’t know who she was talking about but he liked the light in her eyes. He remembered one poem she quoted because it was rather filthy; something about a debt to pleasure. She had blushed and argued it was poetry, not filth. He could still feel the warmth in her cheeks.
Then he remembered he’d just witnessed Jill kissing a stranger and felt cold from the tips of his toes to the lobes of his rather fleshy ears. Earlobes which Jill had professed to like nibbling. Bill wasn’t sure whether to believe her, or whether she was just saying that because she thought it was what he wanted to hear. He’d rather she said she enjoyed nibbling his cock, perhaps more nuzzling than nibbling. He imagined kissing Jill, every kiss starting with the fence of tightly-closed lips which he recognised as modesty and which turned him on more than if her mouth had instantly been open and warm. He liked the winning-over of Jill, each time a small victory: his room or hers (his; because he lived alone while she shared with a fat girl from Hull who ate only saver-size packets of cheese and onion crisps and whose farts smelt of cheese and onion too), curry or Chinese (always curry; beansprouts ugh), missionary or doggy (obvious).
Who was this man in the dark suit, with a briefcase. The latter worried him; a man with the money to take her out, who would pay for a taxi home in the snow and not suggest they walk home to keep warm as they had on New Year’s Eve because Bill’s student grant had run out. His fears suffocated him, as if a cool hand was placed over his mouth and nose, as if his dreams of graduating, of qualifying as an architect, of building a house for Jill, had been buried by his inability to understand the mysteries of women. Of one woman. He thought of the small ring with its delicate diamond which lay hidden in its red box beneath his pillow. He didn’t want to wait until he had a salary, didn’t think Jill would mind a ring with a small diamond, more like a chip off an ice cube than a real gem, didn’t think she would want to wait for the architect’s salary.
He felt like an ice cube now, shivering, as a blanket of fog fell over London and draped his world in grey.
She studied the spire, trying to remember what Bill had told her about church architecture. He’d written a paper about it once, long ago. He’d been so enthralled by it that she’d tried hard to be enthralled too. Norman churches had rounded arches, she remembered, the pointy ones were gothic but most churches were added to and repaired over the centuries so they were all mongrels.
She remembered a weekend in Kent. They’d taken the train to Tunbridge Wells and trundled between villages on old buses, church to church. She read the verses on moss-covered tombstones, still remembered one: “My dearest Agnes, from the first day to our last together, every day I loved you more.” In 30 years time, she thought, that could be us. She watched Bill sketching architectural details, following the line of his pencil as he described each feature. His words wouldn’t stay in her brain, her head was full of 1805, St Petersburg and fear of war with Napoleon.
The finger of ice touched her neck. Ignoring it, she focussed on the ghostly spire; it was straight, the top flat. Didn’t all church spires point upwards to God, to heaven? The gargoyles hung downwards like stalactites, or stalagmites. These gargoyles looked more like swords or spears than animals, growling, scowling animals. Something was roaring though, a hungry lion. The only lion she’d seen was a sad one at Chessington when it was still a zoo and not a place for frightening rides.
After the kiss she had waited all that night with the door of the flat wedged open so she could hear the telephone downstairs ring. She’d hated herself for being weak, wished she’d gone to the pub with Ann. She wanted Bill to shout. She hated shouting but needed to know he cared. That’s why she’d done it. The kiss. She needed to know it was more than sex.
Ann said she was a romantic, that real men didn’t buy roses. The phone had not rung and Ann had come home drunk at 11.30 smelling of beer and crisps. The next day, unable to listen to the silence of the phone, unable to concentrate on nineteenth-century Russia, Jill ran away from the silence and Ann’s knowing eyes to Chessington. The sad lion was on its own in a bare concrete pit, pacing along the fence, its eyes dull, its throat roar-less.
This must be a different lion, roaring and whistling, the sound high in the air was ghostly now. Whoo…rrrr. Coming to get her. Cradled by cold, Jill’s thoughts came less frequently now, interspersed with emptiness like the pause in Morse code.
Dot dot dot. Dash dash dash. Dot dot dot.
The pauses grew longer… until the last dash,
… then the last dot.
Bill heard the wind rise and knew it meant the sky would clear and the temperature plummet. He didn’t know how much longer he could stand the icy biting and stabbing in his leg but knew he must get to Jill. Jill, who came skiing with him because she knew he loved it. Jill, whose lovely athletic bottom was slightly squishier these days but all the more cuddlable in its softness. Jill, who loved him despite all his idiocies, who gave him every drop of her love, who had waited months for him to call her after that daft stunt with the kiss. Stubborn, he thought, that’s what I was. Months I wasted sulking, months I could have spent with Jill.
And he remembered the words of his father, the night before the wedding. They’d strolled to the village pub, opposite the lovely Romanesque church with its particularly nice South Door. “Three things will keep you married, lad. Listening to her, accepting what she says and expecting nothing back.” Bill had tried to live up to his father’s words which had, after all, kept his parents’ marriage alive for almost 50 years.
“And it worked, we’re happy” Bill said aloud, except his throat was as dry as if he’d swallowed a piece schoolmaster’s chalk. He lay back against the pillow of snow and made an effort to see into the white. He’d never appreciated before just how many shades of white there were, many more than a paint chart. Above, reaching up to the sky was a pylon, grey metal furred with frost and hung with icicles, like the decorative lights their neighbour hung from his roof every December.
Bill lay in the snow, feeling the burning in his limbs fade to be replaced by numbness. He longed for one last look at Jill’s left ankle where a freckle emerged whenever she was suntanned, just beneath the knob of the bone, in the exact shape of Greenland. She insisted it was the shape of Sweden, but that was just her ABBA thing.
Accepting he would never see in colour again, Bill relaxed as it started to snow.
© Sandra Danby