With the first snowflakes came a heavy silence. The city hunkered down to weather the storm. Flurries of snow shot down the alleyways and settled in thick piles in the parks. Andrew stood at the window of his apartment on the sixteenth floor and watched the view disappear into a swirl of white. Lena watched the same snowflakes from her apartment, also on the sixteenth floor, but in the tower block on the other side of the street. They both stood in silence as the world shrank down to the size of a window and filled up with snow.
The storm blew itself out overnight, leaving the streets white and the buildings frosted. It would be a day, perhaps two days, before the city woke from its slumber and shook off its thick coat of white, before the snowploughs cleared the roads and they were back to their usual bustling selves. Andrew had taken the day off. No point in struggling through two feet of snow only to sit at a desk poring over financial documents that were in no way urgent. It was as good a time as any to finish the chores he’d been putting off since moving in. There was a shower curtain to hang up, a bookcase to be assembled, and endless surfaces to clean.
It was past ten o’clock before Lena dragged herself out of bed. She pulled a tattered cardigan over her pyjamas, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and went in search of coffee. While the espresso machine hummed and whistled, she pulled the curtains back and gazed out at a soft, silent world of snow and low-hanging clouds. Nobody was outside, but there was movement in the tower block opposite. A man was up on the windowsill with a cloth and a squeegee, standing on his tiptoes so he could reach the very top of the window.
Andrew waved back and promptly dropped the squeegee. As he hopped down to retrieve it, he knocked over his bucket. A wave of hot, soapy water sloshed over his feet and across the floor. He spent a few minutes mopping it up. When he looked back outside, the woman was still standing there, now with her hands wrapped around a mug. He pulled off his wet socks and held them up. Even from across the street he could tell she was frowning, so he picked up the bucket and mimed dropping the socks in. She laughed and raised her mug to him. He clambered back onto the windowsill.
Lena finished her coffee and felt slightly more human, despite the fact that her hair was sticking up in the back and her pyjamas were wrinkled and full of holes. She wanted to take a long hot shower and curl up under a blanket with one of the whodunits on her bedside table, but she really shouldn’t. Her deadline was today. She’d been hired to design and draw covers for a series of fantasy novels, and she had finally finished the twelfth and last the previous night. Or was it that morning? It didn’t matter. She looked over the twelve cover artworks a final time and had to suppress a shudder. The publisher had wanted every fantasy stereotype and cliché they could think of. The covers were a riot of dragons, ruined castles and mysterious hooded figures, bordered by what some manager thought Celtic knotwork should look like. But the colours were clear and bright, the shadows were realistic and the dragon scales looked iridescent. And then there was the small matter of the invoice she could finally send. She happily did so, then made herself another coffee and drank it by the window. It had been weeks since she had drawn or painted something for herself, just for the pure joy of it. She had the time now, but all her inspiration was gone. The outside world was lost in the snow. It was white, white, white. Piercing, blinding, blank. Her neighbour opposite had finished cleaning his windows and seemed to be moving his furniture around.
The apartment was tiny, and Andrew had to push his sofa and table out of the way to gain enough floorspace to assemble his bookcase. He manoeuvred the Ikea flat pack into place with some difficulty. The woman was watching him again, mug in hand. She was still wearing pyjamas. Perhaps she was sick. She didn’t look sick. He gazed through his newly cleaned windows and raised an eyebrow at her.
There were books everywhere in Lena’s apartment. Towers of dog-eared paperbacks, great stacks of hardbacks with their spines broken in several places, and boxes of pristine novels with dazzling jewel-bright colours that she had designed. She pulled a few of these out and held them up.
Andrew wished he could make out which books they were. He wanted to know their titles. Did she like to read? Was she a librarian, off-duty because of the snowstorm? Or was she the author of these books? He mimed writing.
Lena shook her head vigorously. It made her hair stick up in even stranger tufts than before. Whatever space in her apartment was not given over to books was full of art supplies. She pulled out the largest sketchbook she had, found a thick black marker and got to work. A minute later she pressed the paper against the window.
It was a remarkable drawing, beautiful in its simplicity. Somehow, a few black lines transformed into a dragon that snarled at Andrew from across the street. He gave her a thumbs up. She took up the marker again, and a moment later he was laughing at a drawing of himself with a squeegee, one foot in a bucket, and the other stretched out behind for balance. Oh, that was brilliant. He took a framed photograph from the wall and set it on the windowsill in front of him.
Lena watched as he detached the back of the frame and took the photograph out. From the distance she couldn’t quite make out what it was, but there was a lot of blue and grey. The sea, perhaps? He lifted the empty frame slightly and pointed at her. No, not at her, at the sketch, the one of him cleaning his windows. She held it a little higher, and when he nodded, she rolled it up, slipped a rubber band around it and set in the corner of the windowsill where he could see it. He would have to come and get it himself, though. There was no way she was going out in the snow.
Did obtaining a line drawing from a neighbour he’d never spoken to count as acquiring art? Andrew felt like it should. It was just what the apartment needed. He hung the empty frame back on the wall. The flat pack bookcase was still in its box, lounging on the floor in an accusing sort of way. He ripped open the cardboard and set to work. It would have been easier with someone to help, but when he held up the various planks and screws his neighbour opposite recoiled and pointed down to the thick snowdrifts sixteen storeys below them.
Lena often wondered why humans didn’t hibernate. But as she couldn’t avoid snow by sleeping, she’d avoid it by not going outside more than was strictly necessary for survival. Helping a man she’d never spoken to put together some kind of wooden contraption was not a good enough reason to go traipsing through the Arctic hellscape outside. She would not be much use to him if she lost her fingers to frostbite. But perhaps there was something she could do from here.
There were supposed to be a number of small holes on the inside of the main panel of the bookcase, so that a thingy that looked like a rail could be attached with a few odd-looking screws. The rail would eventually support a drawer, which Andrew had thought a useful feature when he bought the bookcase. He regretted it now, because the small holes were on the wrong side of the panel. Or possibly he’d attached the panel upside down. There was no way to fix this. He would have to disassemble all his hard work and start over. Why was the manual so horrid? When he looked up, he saw a much improved version in the windows of the apartment opposite.
Lena taped the last sketch in place and had the satisfaction of seeing her furniture-assembling, squeegee-wielding neighbour burst out laughing. She had drawn four panels. The first showed him with a flat pack, dreaming of a neat little house with square windows and a triangular roof. Next came the construction process, which was a total disaster. In her sketch, he looked utterly dejected as he hit his thumb with a hammer. He perked up in the third panel, when he realised the crooked house looked a bit like a rocket ship. The fourth and final panel showed him zooming off into space, with earth falling rapidly behind.
Andrew went back to his half-built bookcase. Lena spent a long time looking at the snow.
It wasn’t white. How could she ever have thought it was just an empty, bare, white nothingness? There were streaks of purple and yellow, and the shadows were a deep blue like the sky on a midsummer’s night. She dusted off her easel and found paints, brushes and a canvas.
Late that afternoon, it was Andrew’s turn to relax with a hot drink. He had shoved the finished bookcase into the corner by the sofa. The drawers worked smoothly and the shelves were broad and high enough to hold his books. He sipped Earl Grey tea while his neighbour opposite worked away at her canvas. She was a messy painter. Soon there were streaks of colour on her forehead and in her hair. Occasionally she looked up and gave him a wave. He would tap his watch, and she would roll her eyes.
The smell of oil paint was intoxicating after so many weeks of only making digital art. Lena had placed her easel by the window to catch the light. She hummed to herself as her brushes whispered over the canvas, leaving streaks of colour that joined together to create light and shadow. It was getting close to sunset when she put her brushes down at last. She was still wearing her pyjamas and cardigan. They were now speckled with burnt sienna and ultramarine. She stretched and waved across the street, then placed both her hands on the easel, ready to turn it around. Her neighbour waved back and held up something small and black.
It had taken Andrew nearly twenty minutes to find his old binoculars. The floor behind him was littered with the discarded contents of the drawers and storage boxes he had looked through. He pressed the binoculars against his eyes, glad that he had cleaned the window. A pause, then she turned the easel around.
She had painted the two of them, leaning out from their windows towards each other. Except that the real world didn’t look so hauntingly dreamlike. The painting was ghostly and utterly beautiful. Their tower blocks had been stretched to fairytale castles that faded away into fog and swirling snow. She had painted snowdrifts and dancing snowflakes that were somehow both dazzlingly white and made up of a thousand different colours.