Read by Katy Darby
When she emerges from the tube station it's dark, and snow is falling fast. Fat white flakes stick to her thin coat. Which way to turn, up this black slushy road, or down? Apart from the odd car, there’s not a soul to be seen. She’s never been north of the Euston Road before, and here she is in the icy wastes of St John’s Wood. No sounds of celebration; you’d never guess it was New Year’s Eve. She knows 1969 will be a happy year, a thrilling year. Even, possibly, the year she falls in love.
She turns left and walks uphill. Could this be the road? Big double-fronted houses, steep hill, hard-to-read sign. Vanity made her leave her specs behind. She wants to look her best; loads of mascara to show up the blue of her eyes. How lucky she was to sit next to him on the coach, on the way to her very first anti-apartheid demo. To be invited to a party by someone that funny and sexy: a face like a faun: those slanted eyes and eyelashes curly as his hair.
Her boots leak. They’re soft blue suede; so trendy when she spotted them in Biba. She never thought about London having real weather, not like Wiltshire. She’d be wearing Wellingtons if she’d stayed at home. Boxing Day: walking the Downs, high on the hills, looking down on the hunt; a ribbon of hounds rippling across the landscape. Daddy was cross, said surely she didn’t need to be back in London quite so soon after Christmas, but he hadn’t a leg to stand on when she said she had an essay to write, that she simply had to be back in the college library.
This must be it. Number 12: steps up, big door, fat black cast-iron knocker: a goat’s head: leering expression, street lights glinting on the horns. Old fashioned bell-button. Mittens make it hard to press. No one comes. She listens to the soft silence, stamps numb feet on the slippery top step; descends, notices a side passage; the house is divided up. A painted arrow on the brickwork points towards the back: 12a.
Slippery path – careful! She’s sliding, falling … soft landing: lucky she’s wearing her maxi-coat – good old Biba again! She rises, shaken, beats impacted snow from soft brown wool with ineffectual mittens and proceeds towards light spilling from a window at the back of the house. Virgin snow glitters. Glass door with bell. A broken burring noise resonating distantly. Voices! A man, fiftyish, bushy grey eyebrows, jerks the door open, sticks his head out, peering round the frame.
“Yes?” Unfriendly, irritable …
“I’ve come to the party, Mark invited me.”
“I don’t know. He just gave me the address.”
“Who is it?” a woman’s voice from within.
“Some girl. Says she’s been invited to a party!” the man shouts back into the house. His head retracts; his voice lowers. “Covered in snow,” almost whispering, “a bit odd.” The head, the eyebrows, re-emerge, “No party here dear. Maybe you should be trotting off home?”
Retrace steps – except she can’t; already they’ve disappeared. This time she falls against a snow-laden privet hedge. She must have mistaken the number. Try next door: but that’s 14. All right then, the one before: no lights, shutters closed, attacked by rosebush ... getting closer – no, dammit! it’s 10. Stumbling back. If only she was wearing a maxi-dress instead of this frilly little chiffon number! Ease down the skirt, clench the bare and tender thighs, which flinch in the cruel chill. Maybe this is the wrong street?
If she doesn’t get to the party she’ll never see Mark again. London’s so big. Before she came to University she’d only ever been to Oxford Street for shopping. And the theatre at Christmas of course: Peter Pan, Toad of Toad Hall ... the Royal Shakespeare once, on a school trip: A Winter’s Tale. Those sorts of things were so childish compared to being a Londoner, owning an A–Z, going to a party in North London with a bottle of Liebfraumilch in your bag. She hopes no one notices that it's only three-quarters full, left over from another party: a really really boring party, full of economics students chewing Twiglets and droning on about Keynes.
Tonight’s party is going to be ... fabulous. Mark’s friends are probably doing Literature and Theatre Studies, Slavic languages, maybe even philosophy: you can’t get sexier than that. She pictures them dancing around her, all velvety and glittery with furry afghan bits round the edges.
“The trouble with you Cindy,” her mother had said, “is that you are always hoping. It’s about time you grew up and accepted that life never lives up to our expectations.” How awful to believe that. She feels sorry for poor Mummy. It can’t be easy being old and married with no future at all.
All Christmas she’s been imagining Mark’s greeting. He’ll put his arm round her shoulder like they belong together: “Hi everyone, meet Cindy.” He’ll find her a glass of wine; something sophisticated, romantic, Italian maybe: Bardolino. She tries out the word, syllable by syllable: Bar-do-leen-oh. Snowflakes stick to her teeth.
It was 12 Priory Road wasn’t it? Or was it Priory Avenue? Check, quick, scrabble in the dangling embroidered shoulder-bag (product of Afghanistan, land of peace and love). No notebook! It must be there: she had it when she set out. But it isn’t ... Her beady-eyed thrushes have flown!
Despair. Now she’ll never get to the party: she might as well go home or just lie down on the pavement and wait for the snow to bury her. It can’t be true. It just cannot be true that she and Mark are not destined to gyrate wildly to Paint it Black; that the floor won’t judder beneath their prancing feet, that the needle won’t jump out of the groove and have to be gently replaced by some joint-toking ethereal type. all skinny trousers, shoulder-length hair She and Mark lost in the dance, drinking each other up with their eyes; bodies apart - twisting, bouncing, vibrating, but held together by that mutual gaze – iris to iris, a rainbow bridge.
She stamps her pathetic suede-booted foot in the silencing snow. Tears well up. The endless road stretches out blank and white before her: The White Album, her brother’s Christmas present to her. Already its music is woven into the fantasy. Towards the end of the night, Dear Prudence will be playing. By then they will be heavy-limbed with tiredness and desire. Mark will draw her towards the mistletoe, which hangs… where… where will it be hanging? Not above a doorway, that’s no good, people bumping into you all the time: “Sorry mate, just need to get to the kitchen, see if there’s any beer left…” No, it’ll be hanging from the antlers of a stag’s head above the mirror in the quiet of the empty hall. Mark will embrace her. “Cindy, Cindy…” he’ll murmur into her hair, her rippling hair…
She’s sitting on the kerb, snow soaking into her coat. She’s reached a point of frozen ecstasy…. Wake up! This is what happens in the Arctic. Next moment the polar bears will get you. Remember your primary objective: find the notebook. How could it have got out of the bag? Wait a minute. What about the fall?
Slither back towards number 12. Cling to the solid snow-capped gatepost with sodden mittens – stop for a moment, just to catch your breath all sensation lost in feet. Think about Scott, Oates, “I may be some time”. (Momentary mental swerve towards Scott’s Porridge Oats, a steaming bowl ... when did she last eat? Years it seems.)
Now, set off along the path, cautiously slither round the side of house. Light from the back window has reduced to a slit; the curtains are closed. Her footsteps have again been obliterated, as if she was a memory repeatedly shut out. Jazz seeps from the house now; a distant, almost indistinguishable trumpet.
How will she find her poor little book in the dark and the snow? Better remove the muffling mittens. She crouches and fumbles through a snowdrift, near where she might have fallen. Under the privet is a dark and snowless space. Sound of the back door opening.
“It’s that girl again. She’s crawling round in the snow. I told you she was disturbed.”
And then the woman’s voice, “Better dial 999. Don’t open the door. You can never be too careful, not since they closed the special unit.”
“Oh don’t fuss Hilda.”
Hands too cold to feel. Give up? No way! Think of his eyelashes, that sleepy look, those jutting hips. And all the time, whenever the mind rests on him, there’s that fluttery feeling in the stomach’s pit that must mean love: the one chance, the real thing.
Thank goodness! Here it is! Her hand clutches the soggy little book just as another hand grasps her shoulder.
“Now dear, isn’t it time you stopped crawling around that bush? I’m sure your friends will be worrying about you.”
She shakes herself free, spins round, bounds and slithers down the path. She ricochets from privet to gatepost. Behind her, snow crashes and crumples down in cosmic avalanches. Lamplight makes a thousand tiny rainbows gleam in the frozen crystals. She’s back on the road, triumphant. The blood is flowing again in her frozen feet. Didn’t she always know that hope and perseverance have their own reward? She’s absolutely certain to find him now.
Love, that warm bird, that feathery strawberry-stealer, is back within her grasp!
(c) Stephanie Brann, 2014
Stephanie Brann has been writing a novel for a long time. Now she’s rewriting it. She’s had a few small things published online by The Casket of Fictional Delights and Liars' League. She contributed to Dawn Reeves’ collection, Changing the Ending. She dedicates this story to the late John Petherbridge.
Katy Darby (right) studied English at Oxford University, where she appeared in over 30 plays in Oxford, Edinburgh and London, and won the Ronny Schwartz scholarship to the Oxford School of Drama. She has also directed several London productions, including the Time Out Critic's Choice comedy Dancing Bears: she prefers being behind the camera but sometimes steps into the limelight.